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Is Your Startup's Culture A Superpower Or An Achilles Heel?

Passive vs. Proactive Culture 

There are few parts of a company more impactful than its culture, which should define why the company exists, why its employees work there, why its customers use its products, and why its investors support its growth. When executed well, a company’s culture can be a powerful force of gravity – attracting and retaining employees, customers, investors, journalists, and more; it’s the ultimate company superpower. Challengingly, though, a company’s culture develops at the company’s inception and it is almost impossible to change once it sets.  

Yet, many founders initially approach their company’s culture passively, allowing it to take shape without (much) intentionality or thoughtfulness. Founders often deprioritize formalizing the pillars of their startup’s culture, instead focusing on items with a greater immediate impact. However, by the time that a founder circles back to work on their company’s culture, it’s too late to meaningfully change things without a whole lot of pain. So, what’s a founder to do? 

Intentional Culture Development 

Part 1: The Company 

Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk, How great leaders inspire action, and his ensuing Golden Circle philosophy provide an instructive guide to defining three foundational pillars of a company’s culture: Why, How, and What. With this framework, founders are able to define the core tenets of their organization’s existence. As a company’s critical metrics should ladder into these tenets, defining the pillars can be a helpful way to figure out what a founder should be measuring and prioritizing.  

Part 2: The People 

You then need to define the traits of people whom you want in and around your company and the beliefs that these people must share with you in order to be successful. The output from both of these steps should be clear and divisive! You want your potential customers, employees, and investors to react strongly to your preferred traits and beliefs: Either those traits are exactly what they also believe (in which case there could be no better place to invest time, energy, and capital) or they are not (in which case, you’ll be happier as an employee, customer, or investor elsewhere). 

Implementation 

Now with your company culture, you’ve created a source of truth upon which your team should rely so that their decisions and actions are aligned with your intentions, but do not require your constant involvement. This is, frankly, one of the most effective ways to free up a leader’s time – teaching folks how you want them to make decisions instead of making the decisions for them.  

This cultural evangelism requires consistent implementation and repetition to successfully take root and thrive. After all, how many companies do you know whose culture and principles are well defined on paper but are absent in reality? Every decision you make should be grounded in your culture, and you should consistently overshare this connection with your team so that they experience you practicing what you preach. 

As an aside, remember your childhood, when your parents would constantly demonstrate and explain to you the values that were important to them and that they wanted to instill in you. In fact, they probably did this frequently enough to drive you crazy (“C’mon Dad, I knowwwwwww)! And yet, now that you're an adult, the pedantry of your parents’ behavior has resulted in your acceptance and implementation of these values in your own life. And so, be to your team the teaching parent that always connects your actions to your company’s culture, because though you’ll probably annoy them at times, you’ll ensure that the principles that are so foundational to your company remain active.  

Case Study 

To share an example of this advice in action, I’m sharing Amper’s cultural pillars, set by my co-founders and me in 2015 and never changed throughout the company’s existence.    

Culture at Amper Music 

Our Core Belief 

We believe that humans and artificial intelligence are extraordinary collaborators. 

Why We Are Here 

In everything we do, we want the collaborative experience between humans and artificial intelligence to propel the creative process forward. 

How We Fulfill Our Core Belief 

We redefine what is possible by teaching computers to be intrinsically creative and enabling relationships between humans and artificial intelligence. 

What We Do To Fulfill Our Core Belief 

Music is the medium through which we express this creativity. We combine the highest levels of artistry with groundbreaking technology to empower anyone to create unique, professional music, instantly. 

We Are:  

  • Creatively driven 
  • Passionately musical 
  • Technologically curious 
  • Constantly striving for greatness

We believe: 

  • Honesty breeds trust. Trust breeds creativity. Creativity breeds success. 
  • The solution is more important than the source.
  • Teams achieve more than individuals. 
  • Failure contributes to success. 
  • You are at your best at Amper when you are at your best outside of Amper.