Ten Top Tips: Grow your company without losing the start-up culture

It can be difficult to maintain the raw energy and enthusiasm of a start-up as your business grows. Here are ten ways to keep the culture while raising the headcount.

by Mhairi McEwan
Last Updated: 20 Nov 2015

1. Know your story

Entrepreneurs either start a business with a clear vision of the culture they hope to create or it quickly emerges from the key personalities involved. Don’t allow the stories you build to get lost as the business grows: write them down; create videos; share at workshops; or whatever works for you. Help everyone to contribute to and feel part of the culture.

2. Don’t be afraid to let your culture evolve

As you grow and new people join, the culture can change in good and bad ways.  Let it evolve but don’t be afraid to root out any negatives that creep in. Don’t stifle change but accept that it will need to be actively reviewed over time. The trick is in giving it a guiding hand as opposed to a total free rein. 

3. Let the founders lead the story...

People identify with other people. The founders of the business and the early leaders are usually the strongest symbols of its culture. They should be visible and should never tire of telling the stories and dispelling any myths. From a start-up in a garage, to trading on a market stall, people love stories and relish those inspiring details.

4. ...but don’t let them be the sole architects and spokespeople

Recognise that the business has to move on beyond the original founders. Smart leaders recognise this, ensure new recruits share the original DNA of the business and engage the broader team to live and breathe the original vision whilst moving forward to embrace new opportunities and challenges.

5. Bring everyone on the journey

Make sure the culture is shared and owned personally and at every level of the business. Use plain, transparent, accessible language so that everyone understands what the culture really means and does not mean.

6. Listen

Recognise that people form the culture and their views count. Culture doesn’t respond well to dictators! Lead by example whilst allowing for feedback and change what’s not working. It’s all part of the process of evolution.

7.  Make your culture a priority

The financials are clearly important but if you neglect culture you may end up losing far more valuable assets - people. The failure of many corporate mergers is testament to this. Appoint a team to work with the founders to define your unique culture. Develop a Company Charter which helps it come to life and have ways of working that keep the culture alive.

8. Plan recruitment around culture

Hire the sort of people that will embrace and thrive in your culture, not try to destroy or work against it. On paper they might have exactly the right skill set, but do your due diligence to ensure they will fit in and thrive.

9. Celebrate your culture

You can’t dip in and out of culture. It’s a full time commitment. It should run through everything you do, from the charities the business supports to the incentives you offer employees. Everyone should understand how such activities complement and build the culture. In other words, be explicit and rejoice in it.

10. Use technology

Good dialogue is essential for communicating culture. Platforms such as Yammer build a sense of community internally, especially in larger organisations where it’s rare for everyone to be in the same place at the same time. Your company blog and Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn can also help to share your culture externally.

Mhairi McEwan is co-founder and CEO at branding consultancy Brand Learning

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