3 Steps to Building a World-Class Startup Culture

3 Steps to Building a World-Class Startup Culture

by kirkcoburn

I will begin by outlining the three steps to building this world class culture of which I believe is imperative to success.

  1. Be in your calling
  2. Focus on designing and building a culture based on your code
  3. Create a decision making process that is consistent and predictable


One blog cannot capture this topic well enough. So I will be discussing this over the next two weeks starting with #1: Be in Your Calling. True Calling

Your calling … or as I like to term it: your sweet spot: As an individual, you know you are in your calling when your “work is love made visible.” To put it another way, “What does it feel like when you’re dancing? Don’t know. Sorta feels good. Sorta stiff and that, but once I get going… then I like, forget everything. And… sorta disappear. Sorta disappear. Like I feel a change in my whole body. And I’ve got this fire in my body. I’m just there. Flyin’ like a bird. Like electricity. Yeah, like electricity.” Billy Elliot. Being in your sweet spot, your calling, is self-known. It is intrinsic; even innate. And it is as different to individuals as there are individuals.

But this individual feeling does not preclude others from observing if you are indeed working within your calling. As I study, research, practice, speak and discuss the topic of one’s calling and corporate culture, I have come to the conclusion that the two topics are so interconnected that you can hardly speak about one without discussing the other. When our lives are on track (relationships, sleep, eating habits, health, etc) then our sense of well being is purveyed in our actions. When we are truly living in our sweet spot, working in our desired passionate field, all else within our work environment is affected. We are engaged at work, there is more pride on our product and productivity, and the top 1% of those engaged (working in their respective sweet spot) are four times more successful as cited in a 2012 Gallup poll* “which examined 49,928 business or work units and included about 1.4 million employees in 192 organizations, across 49 industries, and in 34 countries — makes clear that employee engagement strongly relates to key organizational outcomes in any economic climate. ” Conversely, a lack of passionate engagement at work ultimately resulted in a loss of productivity costing in excess of $300 billion in the US annually.

Therefore, if you are not in your calling individually or as a company, you will lose. Let me explain. In 2012, the #1 golfer in the world was Rory McIlroy. During a competitive round of golf which is played over 18 holes per day, it took him an average of 68.9 strokes. The last player to finish on the cut line (the last player invited to come back next year) was David Mathis. It took David Mathis 71.3 strokes per 18 holes to finish. A 3% difference separated the best player in the world with the last player on tour. Only a few extra strokes per round cost over $7M in earnings and $25M+ in endorsements. The difference between being the best in the world and barely hanging on is on the margins. And I believe the margin is being in your calling individually and a company hiring, firing, managing and rewarding based upon its culture that is defined and defended.

Simply put, all individuals must be in their calling! Sounds impossible. It is not. And why start a company if you won’t shoot for the stars? “In the book, the Millionaire Mind, Thomas Stanley reviews the characteristics and distinguishing traits of the most wealthy people. It does not turn out to be intelligence, business category, education, family’s opportunity or even major. All of the wealthiest people were all doing something that they absolutely loved!” from 48 Days to the Work you Love by Dan Miller. We are back to Kalil again, “Work is Love Made Visible.” And this applies not only to us as founders, as employees, but as companies!

Once you have identified your personal sweet spot, how can your company’s culture facilitate the engagement and even encourage its expansion? (NOTE: If you do not know how to determine your calling, start with Dan Miller’s book mentioned above. At SURGE, one of our codes is to Know Thyself and Seek Self-Improvement. Leadership starts with understanding your own passions, strengths and limitations and then finding ways to succeed. Knowing thyself is step one in becoming a great leader. And leadership is core to SURGE and the legacy we are going to leave with our founders. We encourage our team to be courageous, to be interested in exploring themselves further and then finding ways to succeed.

I am fascinated by great company culture. I am convinced that culture is the most important kernel of a company. A strong company culture must be bounded by its core values and decision making process. Companies that will hire, fire, manage and reward based upon its core values, its “CODE”, are inspirational and perhaps unstoppable. Dharmesh Shaw, co-founder of HubSpot, says it well, “The best companies are deliberate about culture. They design it and defend it.” What is a great Company Culture? I think Kalil Gibran says it best. It is when “Work is Love Made Visible.” In other words, it is when all parties work together as if as a group, are in their calling.

Dharmesh Shah, the co-founder of HubSpot, wrote an awesome blog about his discovery of the HubSpot culture. In it, he describes the concept of Culture Debt. “The interest on culture debt is really high. Culture debt is when you take a short-cut — hire someone now because they have the skills you need and you’re *hurting* for people — but they’re not a good culture fit. You let the “culture bar” down. You might do this for logical reasons. For the same reason you might incur technology debt or financial debt. I’m going to posit that the effective interest rate on the culture debt you take on is often higher than that of technology debt. Even after culture misfit hires move on, their corrosive effects on the company live on.”

While others may be able to read whether or not you appear passionately engaged in your work, only you can truly determine if you are in your sweet spot. SURGE is working on an assessment and program to determine this ourselves by working with a few of the best experts in this space. As we learn, we will share our results. The companies that have truly amazing cultures and great performance have similar processes to do this which includes determining if the person fits the culture and two determining if the person is a good fit for the job. Good examples of companies that do this include Zappos, Whole Foods, and Southwest Airlines.

Please Join me in the next two weeks as we explore the steps to building a world class culture. And as an aside, I have a simple beginner test on personally determining if you are working in your calling which will be its own blog. But I am hesitant to write that if you feel yourself needing to take this personal inventory … you probably are not in your calling.

“Success is never an accident. It typically starts as imagination, becomes a dream, stimulates a goal, grows a plan of action, which then inevitably meets with opportunity. Don’t get stuck along the way.” Dan Miller

“Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy. For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.  And if you grudge the crushing of grapes, your grudge distills a poison in the wine. And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man’s ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night. All work is empty, save when there is love; and when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God.” – Kalil Gibran


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