Startup Culture Step 2: If you build it, will they come

Startup Culture Step 2: If you build it, will they come

by kirkcoburn

In my last blog, I introduced the concept of building a world class culture in three steps whether you are a cleantech, cleanweb, energy software or any startup:

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

Discussed was the obvious opener of making sure you are working within you sweet spot. To not be makes all else a moot point. Now that the first step is determined, let us proceed.


Culture starts with core values. “The best companies are deliberate about culture. They design it and defend it.” Dharmesh Shaw, co-founder of HubSpot. Core values are the company’s sacred code. They reflect your company’s (and in all likelihood your personal) fundamental beliefs. The core values of the company begin with the beliefs of key people within that company. So it is imperative to first explore what they are and get everyone on the same page. If your start-up is just a one-man show, then when hiring, choose to surround yourself with those whom share your core values.Geronimo, The True Nantaan

We choose to live our lives outside of work focused on our personal core values. We use our individual barometers to decide every spare minute away from work: whom we date/marry, where we attend church/synagogue, political affiliations, philanthropic endeavors, even entertainment choices. So why would we not design and build a work environment (culture) which relays and edifies our core values?

I explored this for myself after feeling empty from the sale of my first startup. I wanted to build a company from the ground up that focused on living by a code beyond just focusing on a core purpose. Many of us may seek the same core purpose, but how we get there is just as, if not more, important than the end. I read numerous books and one connected all of the dots for me. The book, written by my friend Rod Beckstrom, is called: The Starfish and the Spider, The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations. In it, Rod discusses the powerful codes of organizations including one of my favorites, the Apache Indians. I went onto read many books about the Apache code. It was in part the inspiration behind my desire to build a new company from the ground up based on culture. It was my great experiment. The company, Chief Outsiders, still lives by that code today. We instituted a process whereby new recruits were evaluated and tested based upon our code, our core values. Putting my beliefs into action solidified to me that building great companies must start and end with culture. And although time will tell, Chief Outsiders is thriving today. And Rod makes another great discovery, companies/organizations/people that live by a powerful code can operate in a decentralized state. Leaders can come and go, but the organization thrives under a power code. Powerful codes become legacies.

In 2006, Zappos presented a list of its 10 core values. The company went further to circulate an in-house email asking for employees to “think about any employees that you think represent the Zappos culture well, and whether what you like about those employees is covered by the 10 core values proposed below. Conversely, think about any employees that you think do not represent Zappos well”. Key founders of the company compiled their list of core values; their code. They presented this code to their employees and asked them to identify peers within the company which exhibit that code. Zappos created their own business culture first in thought, then in presentation, and finally representation. And their company’s success is attributed by its leaders to their code.

Your company will have enough challenges arising, as all start-ups do. Cohesiveness in culture is the easiest way to limit exposure to in-house differences and even splits. Designing and building your own business culture should be integrated in all aspects, especially hiring, firing, compensation and performance reviews.

Whole Foods has implemented a list of seven core values. And the company puts culture first. “These are not values that change from time to time, situation to situation, person to person, but rather they are the underpinning of our company culture”. Thereby, Whole Foods is built by the same blocks which uphold their core values. There is not diversity within the company culture, there is oneness, which exemplifies the company’s strength. Yes, Whole Foods is comprised of different people, but those people share the same company vision. And this was deliberately designed by its hirings and firings.

Many times, leaders in young companies set aside deliberately designing their company’s culture. And so the culture evolves from myriad decisions made over the first fledgling year. But this needs not be the case. As the entrepreneur and founder of your company, YOU posses the vision of your company’s culture. YOU posses the design plans for the values of which to reflect. YOU posses the leadership to surround yourself with different people whom will all work together under one mindset to help your company succeed. Do not neglect this power. Instead, foster it from the beginning and leave your inevitable errs along the way to other areas of your business.

At SURGE, our CODE that we will Hire, Fire, Manage and Reward by:

  • entrepreneurs first

  • value integrity

  • know thyself and seek self-improvement

  • be unconventional

  • be inclusive

  • passion drives hustle

I will expand upon these in my 4th installment of this series of building and designing a world class culture specific to SURGE. And we are not finished…we have more work to do.

For more information on how to do it within your own company’s code, I am a huge fan of Verne Harnish and his methodology and advice:

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