Why culture is just as important for tech startups as tech

Tine Thygesen is CEO of Mesh, Founders House, and Startup Village, and is on a mission to build superior physical locations and networks to empower creators, entrepreneurs, and change-makers. She has started and led five companies and has been named among the Top 10 Speakers on Tech in Europe.

September 17th, 2020   |    By: Jonathan Low

When a well-known brand like IBM or Nike is recruiting new people, they don’t only have the advantage of the brand but also of high salaries and good perks. An employee signing up at Microsoft essentially gets paid while learning and building up a good CV. And if she would want to leave later, she is well-positioned.

As a startup, you have to compete with this, with no initial brand, no impressive salaries, and no perks. Therefore, you need to deliver something else. What you can deliver is a superior culture.

Culture is one aspect where it should be easy for startups to compete with big corporations. Because startups are small and young, they can be innovative, flexible, fast-moving, and fun. They can be more grounded in their values and be better at selecting people with the same worldview. A place where you smile when you go to work in the morning because you know you’ll go home smarter is startup culture at its best.

There are three cornerstones to building a great startup culture:

  • The founders and execs must see themselves as “first among equals.”

  • Delegate responsibility, not just tasks.

  • Provide a clear mission.

Being first among equals sums up the core of modern leadership. While founders, executives, and CEOs play a unique role in the company, we’re not more important than anyone else. Because a company is an engine of interdependent functions, it is no stronger than its weak- est link. That makes everyone important. It takes humility to appreciate this, and humility isn’t always the strong trait in entrepreneurs. It is, however, a leadership trait that creates huge loyalty.

Twice in my career, I have worked in companies where someone in a leading role has lacked humility. Both times, it led to poor culture, low commitment, and high employee churn. The second area where startups can outcompete corporations is in terms of delegating responsibility. Many people feel unheard and underutilized in their current jobs, and they seek out startups because of the opportunity to play a larger role and have more influence. This is a perfect match for startups, which, due to limited resources, need all employees to work to maximum impact.

It isn’t easy for an opinionated entrepreneur to step back and delegate the whole responsibility, especially at times where the entrepreneur can do the job both better and faster themselves. But investing the time in training people to be able to come up with solutions of their own is highly motivating for the employee whose career is now building speed, and it’s the only way to ensure the entrepreneur does not become a bottleneck.

Perhaps the most critical element in creating a startup culture is being mission-driven. A company on a mission can be as strong as a movement, driven forward by a passionate group of people in the shared urge to change things.

The startups that manage to articulate this clearly can create an almost cult-like atmosphere where the company becomes a major part of the employees’ and founders’ self-image. In this situation, employees wouldn’t think to leave because they feel a part of a group, something big- ger than themselves. They feel their contribution matters. Because the culture is clear, it snowballs stronger and stronger as people who don’t fit in leave and are replaced by new ones that fit better. In the end, the people in the organization share values, have strong personal bonds and dare to trust and rely on each other.

The above is a summary of something big and complicated, but my point is simple: I urge all tech startups to understand that the human element of building a strong company isn’t a soft skill that’s inferior to hard priorities such as coding and fundraising. Soft skills are, increasingly, a startup’s best card. The world is changing, and the new generation of employees demand influence, flexibility, and meaning. That’s our biggest opportunity.

Management, leadership, and communication take time, and time is a luxury you don’t have in a startup. But it’s not only something worth investing in, it’s your best shot at making your company work. Today, the best talent wants to work somewhere where they make a difference, build something lasting, and get to solve problems.

With a great culture, you can empower exactly that.

I’m not saying it’s easy. I am saying it’s worth it.

About the Author

Jonathan Low

This article was done by the Danish serial entrepreneur Jonathan Low. Low is based in Scandinavia but has traveled the world interviewing and talking to some of the leading entrepreneurs and innovators on the planet. The article is part of this journey.

Jonathan Low is the founder of 5 tech-companies and the author of two #1 bestsellers about entrepreneurship and marketing. He is also a public speaker at events in both Europe and the US.

Currently, he is the co-founder and CEO of JumpStory transforming the image industry online. JumpStory has experienced massive growth during the last year and has expanded from nothing to customers in more than 135 countries. Major media like Forbes, Entrepreneur.com, The Next Web, etc. have named JumpStory Netflix of images.

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