Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Ten thoughts on what matters at a startup: Culture

Why does culture matter at a startup?

A culture will emerge, whether explicitly created or not. You’ll be happier, and the startup more successful, if the culture is positive and rewards productivity. A bad culture will drag productivity down and drive good people away.

There are a lot of things that can contribute to a company's culture. Irreverence can be a great reminder not to take yourselves too seriously. At one company where I worked, the washroom walls were covered with the degrees earned by founders and employees at the various universities we had attended.

At Primal Fusion we do a few things that contribute to a positive culture, some of them driven by the fact that we like to learn. We have lunch and learn sessions on a variety topics. When someone goes to a conference or other event, they'll often do a “teach back” session to share the learning. While it's hardly revolutionary, we use an internal blog for which everyone has an account and is encouraged to post on any topic of interest.

Of course it's probably best to avoid encouraging cultural activities that, no matter how much fun they are, detract from productivity.

Finally, the flip side of a positive culture is one that's just not fun to contemplate. I recently encountered a wonderful aphorism in a tweet by John Maeda: “Pessimism loves company. Optimism makes companies.” Better to focus on building a positive culture and making your company successful.

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This is one in a short series of posts called Ten Thoughts on what matters at a startup. The thoughts started life as a presentation I made at VeloCity residence at the University of Waterloo. While they're far from definitive, and aren't a top ten, they've mattered to me in my software startup experience.

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