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How to Create a Successful Company Culture

Updated on June 10, 2012
A Nike sweatshop.
A Nike sweatshop.

There are dozens, if not hundreds of books, blogs, articles and manifestos written about creating company culture. They inform us that company culture is paramount to a successful startup, that it's defined during the earliest stages of planning, and if you screw it up you're...well, screwed.

They may very well be right.

But establishing an effective company culture is a creative endeavor, and by very definition, any list of rules must be flexible. In other words, one size doesn't fit all. Listening to what employees have to say about the culture at their jobs—all in successful startups—can show what employees value and respond to and give insight into creating a company culture that does everything it's supposed to do: Attract the best and brightest workers, encourage creativity and dedication, and foster teamwork and innovation, all of which helps drive the company to success.

On the website, several pages ask employees of successful startups to describe what it's like to work for their company. By studying their remarks, a clear picture emerges of what makes a positive company culture, at least from the employees view.

Hire the Smartest People Who Fit

It's always recommended that startups try to hire the smartest people they can. Seems like a no brainer. A smarter person will do their job better, providing the job is challenging to them. But there are other benefits with having a company staffed with highly intelligent overachievers, and that is they inspire others around them. In fact, each employee who answered the query put great importance in being surrounded by highly intelligent people. Coworkers were described over and over as “smart, trustworthy, capable, creative people, driven to achieve something.” It's also important to strive to hire the right personality types for your business.

Matt McDonald, an alum of McKinsey and Company, a global management consulting firm, says that being surrounded by overachievers leads everyone to delivering at full potential, and often leads people to working quite happily until 11pm. “The people are exceptional,” McDonald said. “The talent is obscene to the point of being a joke. You can't swing a dead cat without hitting an Ivy League graduate. There are Rhodes scholars all over the place. And add to all the brains and accomplishment, they tend to be extremely nice and polished.”

Grant Autonomy

Autonomy is another recurrent theme among employees, being given responsibility, authority, and the flexibility needed to work towards goals set by both the company and by themselves. By having direction and an absence of micromanagement, employees feel empowered to solve difficult problems with elegant and simple solutions of their own design.

Rebekah Cox, Product Design Manager at Quora, a website that connects users questions with the people who can answer them, believes the autonomy she has been given has brought out her best. “This freedom, I think, has allowed me to do some of my best work ever—something that is extremely rewarding and satisfying,” she said. “Every employee gets to enjoy a certain level of autonomy on the projects they work on and it's pretty awesome.”

Painting by Michael Maier
Painting by Michael Maier

Balancing Work and Play

Allowing employees to have lives outside of work, as well as having play options at work, is a philosophy adopted by many, if not most, of successful startups. That includes Pinterest, the wildly successful online pinboard. On the one hand, giving people time to keep their personal lives in order allows more focus at the office, and play or diversions at the office give employees much needed time to recharge their batteries, or simply engage in some activity that spawns creativity.

“There's balance in people's lives,” Tracy Chou, Pinterest software engineer said. “It's healthier and more sustainable long-term; plus how can we build a site about sharing interests if we don't have interests outside of work? Of course it's very important to get things done, and at work we're productive.”

Justin Edmund, Product Designer, added: “The Foosball table is wonky and falling apart, but that's what makes it so much fun. No Pinterest Foosball game is complete without merciless trash talking and lots of laughter.”

Again, play seems to have more than just the benefit of giving workers a break in their day. The respondents talk of being excited to go to work each day, not just because of the challenges they will face, but because they know it will be fun, and that's how you attract and keep workers.

The Perks

And of course there's perks. Oh yes, the perks: Catered breakfast, lunch and dinner, free snacks and beverages, in-house ping pong tournaments, fitness rooms, field trips, company oversea trips and anything you can imagine. And that's just what you will be called on to do: Imagine. How will you create a company culture? You may not be able to put a basketball court on the top floor, but ask what can be offered?

Silvanus Lee, self-described interwebs surfer at Dropbox, the online file storage and share platform, describes Dropbox's perks enthusiastically, but note how he mentions them as a precursor to tackling big challenges. “Not gonna lie, Dropbox is a pretty exceptional place. Beyond the free breakfasts, lunches and dinners daily, the sick new 85,000 sq feet office (right across the SF Giant’s ballpark) and the kickass perks (onsite gym, shuttle service, fully-equipped jamming studio, whiskey Fridays, unlimited Dropbox storage.), it’s the culture, the creative energy, and the opportunity to tackle amazing challenges that makes working at Dropbox so awesome.”

Remember, creating company culture is not about just giving things to employees. It is granting them freedoms, responsibilities, and little (or big) extras that in turn, inspire them to give their very best. So as you are determining what your company culture will be, ask yourself:

  • How will I ensure that I hire the smartest people who fit?

  • How will I grant autonomy to employees?

  • How will I allow employees to have a life outside of work?

  • What perks can I give?

If you can find solutions to—and then incorporate—these four tenets, you'll be well on your way to creating company culture that promotes employee satisfaction and company success.


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