How to Build a Great Startup Culture

Listening to the Masters of Scale” podcast featuring Reed Hastings of Netflix got me thinking, how do you build a great startup culture? Reed Hastings refers to the Netflix Culture Deck” on SlideShare and of course I had to check it out. As the founder of a small business who has worked hard to grow our team, I can sincerely appreciate the leadership skills required to grow a team to the scale of Netflix. What follows are a few lessons learned from a founder’s perspective and suggestions on how to build a great startup culture.

Start with a Vision

“If you don’t know where you are going you will end up somewhere else.” Yogi Berra

If you are going to build a great startup culture, you really need to know where you are going. There is an excellent framework for building a startup operating system called EOS (Entrepreneurial Operating System) which has a tool called the Vision Traction Organizer (you can find the resource here). Well worth the time to check out in my opinion.

Focus on Continuous Improvement

This quote from Reed Hastings in the Masters of Scale podcast also highlights another important characteristic of great leaders, “… real leadership is about being the best human being you can be”.

Great leaders not only have the vision to see a better future for their organization, they also have a drive for continuous improvement in all aspects of their life. An awesome tool for continuous improvement that I have adopted is the OPPP (One Page Personal Planner) from the book Scaling UP by Verne Harnish.

Be a Leader, Not a Boss

boss vs leader

“The first job of a leader—at work or at home—is to inspire trust.” Stephen Covey

In my opinion, one of the most important tasks you have as a leader is to build trust amongst your team and facilitate transparency. Trust is the essential ingredient that bonds all the members of your team and transparency is having the courage to be open and honest with everyone. Transparency potentially poses risk when things are difficult or uncertain, but in the long term can yield dividends. One of the best resources I have come across for building trust within an organization is Principle Centered Leadership by Stephen Covey.

Lose the Hierarchy

“I go to the people instead of them coming to my palace” Reed Hastings

Hierarchy is soooo last millennial. Emerging organizations are much leaner, flatter and more informal than their legacy counterparts. Industrial leaders in large multinational organizations used to have all the trappings of wealth, privilege and power with lavish offices and salaries in excess of 100 times that of the regular workforce. Leadership isn’t about the stuff you have accumulated or symbols of power it is about how you lead and inspire people. Real leaders pitch in, roll up their sleeves and do the dishes or any other task that needs to get done.

Here’s an interesting article on teams and tribes at Spotify. The Starfish and the Spider is also a good resource on the evolution of business.

Choose Your Team Wisely

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.” Michael Jordan

“Team” has taken on an entirely new context in a digital world and while it includes the people in your organization there is a much broader context, too. Choosing your own team is extremely important, but so is picking your distributed team of service providers, coaches, advisors and peer groups. Building a business in a digital world is far more knowledge intensive than it ever has been. In my opinion there is far too much to know for a small team to do it all themselves, you really need to choose your team wisely and focus on fit.

Communication is Key

“The art of communication is the language of leadership.” James Humes

Learning to work together takes time, effort and honest communication. Daily huddles, weekly meetings and retrospectives are all elements of building a frequency of communications and a learning organization. Frequent and regular communication go hand in hand in building open honest communications.

Know the Score

small business

“If it doesn’t matter who wins or loses, then why do they keep score?” – Vince Lombardi

You also really need to have a scorecard to know how you are doing, and most importantly, are you getting shit done. This gets exponentially harder as your team grows or changes. Know your metrics and keep them top of mind.


Think Long Term

“Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.” Warren Buffett

One concept that has stood the test of time is BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) from the Jim Collins classic Good to Great”. Great organizations not only have goals and aspirations, but intermediate “NEXT” steps that move them closer to realizing their BHAG(s). Great organizations understand delayed gratification and that the short term should be moving you closer to the long term by building virtuous cycles – it takes time and effort.

Turning Problems Into Opportunities

“All problems contain the seeds of opportunity, and this awareness allows you to take the moment and transform it to a better situation or thing.” – Deepak Chopra

Stuff is going to happen and one of the key attributes of 21st century leaders is the ability to turn problems into opportunities. The road to success is full of problems and speed bumps.

Enjoy the Ride

startup culture

“Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful.” Joshua J. Marine

Enjoying the ride sounds easy, but it can be a challenge at times, especially when you are in the grind of the day to day. Tactically enjoying the ride means taking the time to celebrate the small victories, keeping an eye on the big picture and ensuring you are making progress while having fun. If it was too easy, anyone could do it. The more difficult the challenge, the sweeter the accomplishment.