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Embracing ‘Startup Culture’ at Any Business Size

Shannon Gausepohl
Updated May 26, 2016

Startup culture has gotten a bad reputation for being all fun and no work. Pop culture has even grasped onto the idea that all startups are youth-led and fast-moving, working out of an overpriced game room with a desk or two. “Parks and Recreation’s” Tom Haverford and Jean-Ralphio Saperstein started “high-end, all-media entertainment conglomerate” Entertainment 720. “Arrested Development’s” Maeby Fünke set up an office for her cousin’s app, Fakeblock.

In both cases, these fictional startups crashed and burned because time and funds were dedicated to creating a “cool” workspace, rather than actually working.

While some companies have modeled their aesthetic after the idealized spaces of Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook, real startup culture encompasses more than a sleek office and fun perks. Rather than 24/7 fun, “work hard, play hard” is the accepted norm.  

Business News Daily asked people who live and breathe startup culture every day to share their take on what it is, and how businesses of any size can embrace and maintain it. [See Related Story: Encouraging Productivity Is All About the Environment]

What is startup culture?

As mentioned above, the typical startup often has a certain aesthetic, but where did the “startup look” come from? Office furniture company turnstone has done a lot of research on emerging companies, to discover what startup culture really looks like and why. General manager Brian Shapland described it as “the innovative and energetic vibe” exhibited by many startups and their founders, and boiled it down to four themes that connect the “ethos” of a company with its environment:

Passion. It all starts with the founder: the idea, the business model and the culture. Whether focused on people, the planet or profit (or all three), entrepreneurs have a unique sense of passion, Shapland said. They live their business, and that passion often comes to life in the office environment.

Personality. Shapland noted that many entrepreneurial leaders want their personality expressed in their space. Instead of having a work environment with a traditional corporate feel (rows of cubes, for example), these founders want it to feel lively, and they’ll seek applications and furniture that express their personality.

“We see evidence of it when a creative company displays a timeline of its milestones in the office, or photos of employees and their nicknames or hobbies displayed throughout the common areas,” Shapland said. “These companies include these elements as a means of connecting teammates, building trust and creating community.”

Agility. Entrepreneurs act with a certain sense of agility. They don’t sit still because their businesses don’t, and Shapland said they need their spaces to facilitate those rapid transitions between activities. This environment includes a setting in which people can stand while working, as well as widespread adoption of lounge spaces.

Authenticity. Entrepreneurs want to create a culture of authenticity. They want their employees to look forward to coming to work and stay engaged while there. Shapland said startups often try to create homelike spaces that enable employees to feel like they can be themselves, such as rooms with lounge chairs and kitchen tables.

“Workers at startups often seek a human approach to space, rather than a cold setting,” Shapland said. “They don’t want to check their personality at the door, and entrepreneurs focus on creating conditions to celebrate that authenticity.”

Beyond the office’s physical appearance and organization, business leaders also described startup culture as having the following attributes:

An “anything is possible” mentality. “Startup culture means hard work [and] long hours but, at the same time, creating your own rules,” said Annie Scranton, founder and president of Pace Public Relations. “As a startup, you are innately in tune with collaborating with new people; finding ways to work smarter, not longer; and throwing dated corporate rules out the window.”

The ability to react and shift quickly. “In its best form, a startup culture is very nimble,” said Jon Schulz, chief marketing officer of Viant. “There is collaboration across the company and a very team-oriented approach. Big companies tend to form silos, and time is often wasted trying to outdo the other division rather than uniting together.”

Employees and leaders who own their contributions. “Culture is creating an environment in which your team members are owners of the process, so they’re dedicated to the team in a different fashion,” Dane Atkinson, CEO of SumAll, said in a piece by American Express.

“You’re wearing lots of different hats [and have] less time and resources, but you’re also intimately connected to what you’re building,” added Matt Barba, CEO and co-founder of real estate technology company Placester. “I think the key to maintaining a startup culture is … instilling that sense of ownership in people, making sure they know that their contributions really make a difference.”

How to keep the startup mentality

All of our sources agreed that no matter what stage your business is in, holding onto a startup culture will help you keep that fresh, innovative edge that puts you a step ahead of your competition. Here’s what you can do to maintain this type of work environment as your company grows.

Celebrate intrapreneurship. “Intrapreneurship” is often described as bringing an entrepreneurial attitude to your team at a larger organization. Shapland said these innovation-minded individuals can help your company maintain its startup culture because they feel that pressure to compete for results and talent.

Choose your leaders carefully. When your company gets big enough to warrant hiring outside leadership, Schulz cautioned entrepreneurs against choosing people who will try to impose “big company processes” on their business.

“Make sure that, as you grow your company, you filter new leadership for cultural fit along with talent and ability,” he said. “Continue to do the things you did as a smaller company, such as happy hours, ball games and March Madness. It is OK to grow upwards, but you can still have fun while maintaining your core values.”

Always listen to new ideas. The biggest enemy to startup culture is getting too stuck in your ways. Refusing to make a change or be flexible because the status quo is working could ultimately hurt your company in the long run, Scranton said.

“Be open to advice from anyone and everyone, especially new hires that you make — they will have a fresh set of eyes into your work and may have great suggestions on how to improve processes,” she said.

Startup culture may always be under a microscope from critics who aren’t willing to break the traditional business structure; despite those negative feelings, startup founders need to do what is best for their business.

“When you’re a team of five doing the work of 10 people, you need to be able to collaborate, and collaborate well,” Barba said. “As you start growing — building out departments, specializing — creating that sense of community gets harder, not easier. Whether it’s a Ping-Pong table, video games or beer on tap, these things enable us to bring teams together around the things they love.”

Additional reporting by Nicole Fallon Taylor.

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Shannon Gausepohl
Shannon Gausepohl graduated from Rowan University in 2012 with a degree in journalism. She has worked at a newspaper and in the public relations field. Shannon is a zealous bookworm, has her blue belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu, and loves her Blue Heeler mix, Tucker.