Culture. It’s one of the most often discussed yet least understood components of any successful organization. Our industry, in particular, is obsessed with the notion of culture—and not without cause. In the early days of a new company, when the greatest tool available is attitude, culture can be the difference between success and failure. It’s what allows small startups to punch way above their weight and make a name for themselves. It’s what allows them to add talent and build a team in an ultra-competitive hiring landscape.
Because it’s so critical to get right, founders spend a lot of time at the outset trying to decide what their culture will look like. But culture is not created simply through mantras and mission statements. It’s created through behavior. That, of course, starts with the founders. But early hiring is where a company’s culture really starts to grow and take shape.
At Ushur, we refer to ours as a “team-first” culture—that is, to say, the team came first. We built our company culture through a careful, strategic early hiring process. In my experience, there are five keys to building a great company culture at the outset:
1. Start with an honest self-assessment.
Who are you? What kind of culture and environment will allow you to thrive? Ultimately, that’s what’s most important. You’re employee number one, and the success of the company is largely dependent on your output. Hire other people who are culture builders and will add to the melting pot. Personally, I lead from the heart more often than not. I use data to make decisions, but in the absence of data, I rely on my experience, my instincts, and my overarching philosophy of kindness. When we began to build the team at Ushur, we looked for people with a similar outlook and attitude. That has become the foundation for our company culture.
2. Hire people with extraordinary intent rather than people with extraordinary skills.
Simply hiring the people who look best on paper is a surefire path to cultural confusion. I don’t consider myself to be the most talented person in the room, but I know I can match anyone’s work ethic. In my experience, people who truly want to achieve a goal typically find a way. A lack of talent may sometimes stand in the way, but a lack of effort will most definitely doom you from the start.
3. Identify growth potential
A person doesn’t need to know everything there is to know about a job before they’re hired, as long as they’re motivated to learn. Employees who can be coached and elevated are indispensably valuable to a company’s culture. Leaders created from within will always have a better finger on the pulse than outside hires. Early generalist hires can become specialists along the way, though where the skillset gap is significant or the charter needs focus, bringing in specialists can make sense.
4. Look for people with a chip on their shoulder.
Hunger, ambition, and a sense of pride aren’t qualities that can be learned. They’re inherent. They’re also hard to fake. As a founder, you should meet with anyone and every one your company hires. At Ushur, my co-founder and I were personally involved in each of our first 50 hires. Those face-to-face interactions make it exponentially easier to identify the intangible qualities that make a great cultural and organizational fit.
5. When the time comes, get out of the way.
The ultimate purpose of culture is to instill two-way trust — trust from your employees that they’ll have the opportunity to do their best work, mirrored by your trust in their ability to do the job. This can be difficult because it requires a degree of relinquished control. The desire to do it all is natural, particularly for product-led founders, but learning to rely on others is key.
The reality of startup life is that employees are asked to accomplish the same things they would at a large company with a fraction of the resources. That resource gap is made up for through creativity, hard work, and sheer will to learn to overcome the odds. To thrive within a startup takes a certain type of person with specific motivations and qualities that match. Ultimately, these are the people who will create, shape, and define your company’s culture. Choose them with care.