How To Build A Culture That Inspires Employees

“Corporate culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage that is completely within the control of the entrepreneur.” David Cummings, Co-Founder, Pardot

In most corporate environments ‘culture’ is something printed on the wall that no one bothers looking at.

But if you doubt the impact that culture can have on a company just take a look around…

In 1997 Jeff Bezos wrote in his letter to shareholders “You can work long, hard or smart, but at you can’t choose two out of three”. That ruthless focus on competition and productivity was the subject of a 2015 New York Times article exposing the “bruising” culture at a company where the founder warns interviewees “It’s not easy to work here.”

But it works for them — Amazon has become on the largest companies in the world, and many employees consider themselves addicted to the intensity.

In contrast, Jason Fried of Basecamp regularly talks about how 40 hours of work per week is more than enough and 8 hours of sleep a night is crucial to producing quality work. Basecamp go further by introducing “summer hours” (a 4-day work week) from May 1st to August 31st, and a one month sabbatical every three years.

Another company defined by its culture is Buffer. Their “default to transparency” approach has led them to make public their salaries, equity and metrics. By making everything transparent, they ensure no employee can threaten leaving to negotiate a raise, nor can they inflate growth numbers in the press by focussing on vanity metrics.

So how do you build your own unique culture as an entrepreneur?


Start with Why:

“If you want to build a ship,

Don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t

Assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them

To long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Antoine De Saint-Exupéry

Why are you building this company in the first place? What are you trying to achieve?

This is your mission statement. It should be bold and inspirational. It should be displayed in your office, and repeated regularly.

It’s often the case that because a founder is constantly focussed on the mission in her head, she mistakenly believes her employees are clear on it as well. But if the mission is only repeated once every few months, it becomes easy for employees to forget exactly why they’re working more hours for less pay than they could be.

Help your employees work towards your mission by breaking it down into six year, six month and six week goals. This enables employees to understand how what they’re working on currently fits into the bigger picture.


Combine this with your values…

Words like ‘teamwork’ mean nothing without context.

Instead think of your values as indicators for every employee in their day-to-day decision making.

Finishing over Starting’ means we want to complete the task at hand before running off to start something new and shiny.

So your Product Manager knows that before moving onto a new feature, she must be sure each existing feature is helping customers achieve their goals effectively,

And your Customer Success Manager knows that he should help a new customer understand the product perfectly, even if it takes one more phone call than recommended.

If you believe in ‘transparency’ as a company, show your employees what that means in practice:

Make salaries public like Buffer has, or have a monthly ‘Ask Me Anything’ meeting where an employee can submit any question and have it answered by senior management.

If someone resigns, tell other employees quickly to prevent gossip from spreading. Then spend time trying to understand why that employee left to prevent the same from happening in the future.

By demonstrating your commitment to your values, employees will begin to incorporate them in their day-to-day decision making. This will help every function operate autonomously while still remaining focussed in the same direction.


Next incorporate your values into hiring..

“Culture is to recruiting as product is to marketing.” Hubspot’s Culture Code

This is where many people go wrong. This does not mean hire people who are like you. That’s how you end up with an office of 15 white twenty-something males in San Francisco, wondering why that female product manager you think is perfect for the job is refusing to join.

Instead, this means hire people who believe in the mission and are fully on board with the values.

But don’t take their word for it – test them.  

If one of your values is “relentless customer focus” and you’re interviewing for an engineering job, ask the candidate what they’d do if a colleague in customer support asked them to fix a bug that was preventing a user from logging in, but they’re already on a deadline to ship a new feature that evening and they simply don’t have time.

If they’ve read and understood your values, they’ know that regardless of the deadline, if a customer isn’t able to use your product and it’s your fault, then that should be your top priority.

And remember, your culture is like your product — you’re unlikely to get everything right first time. Continue to iterate and eventually you will have a group of passionate supporters who believe both in what you’re trying to achieve and how you intend to get there.

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