Building Culture in a Start-up

Do you know what “barbaric” actually means?

This is simple folks: culture at a start-up is one of the most important things you can establish as a founder – it sets the tone for every new hire, it builds the foundations of your brand, and it creates the unspoken ground-rules that can make or break a team.

When we started Tyk – the Open Source API Management Company, I was pretty obsessed with getting our culture right – we needed to hire talented folks, but we had no money, the best thing to counter FAANG (or is it MANGA now?) Being a fantastic place to work.

Culture starts from the top – but it doesn’t stay there

The way you behave – your energy, your outlook, the way you treat others, and the way you expect to be treated in the workplace set the tone of your new company’s culture. When you first start out, you are the culture, you are the company.

As a founder, you are always on show – it’s a public persona. It needs to be crafted and honed just like anything else in your company.

Your persona, and your behaviour is the foundation of what the company will eventually look like.

As with any persona, it’s a little like acting, you need to generate your founder-persona in a way that it’s still representative of who you are, and something that you can slip into and out of with ease, that means – it needs to be comfortable for you psychologically to act a certain way towards you staff.

I’m focussing on your staff here, and not your customers because when it comes to being a founder in a start-up and dealing with customers, you’ll be switching roles, attitudes, and personas all the time – that’s the grind. However when it comes to how you behave internally – stability, reliability, and predictability is best. So make sure you’re comfortable in your own skin.

To back this with my own story: although my team may disagree, I am an introvert. I much prefer the written word over a face-to-face conversation, and social interactions (networking, parties, conferences) are draining. I obviously still do them, but for me, stepping into the “I’m the CEO” persona is a code-switch that – if I had to do it all day every day in an office – would probably kill me. There’s a reason why I live on the arse-end of the planet and prefer all of my meetings via zoom or in writing!

I’ve been pretty open about this with my team – they know that I can get on stage and do the CEO jazz-hands for whatever my marketing team may need from me, they know they can trust me to get on a client call, or partner call, and provide that “Founder distortion lens” that is needed to reassure or impress, they know that I can go into a board room and be an absolute prick if need be (they don’t like it when I do this one).

But my team also know that in the day-to-day business-as-usual norm of the company, I’m much more malleable (and probably palatable!) on slack, or email, or wiki doc where I can respond without the pressure of projecting my persona. Admittedly, my team will also tell me that I can be absolute sh*t in writing, and that’s something I’m working on, promise.

Just like a teacher will set the tone of a class, you will set the tone of your workplace – just by being there. It’s up to you to call out things that act against the culture you want to build, and to encourage the behaviours that you want to see blossom.

When you make your first hires – how you act, how you treat others, and how you handle yourself will directly influence the type of folks you bring into the company to support you in building the business.

At this second stage, you are no longer the culture – your people are.

Get ready for change.

Managed Chaos

As you hire folks, and in turn they hire folks, culture starts to become a living, breathing thing in your company. You are still the standard bearer, but for the culture to succeed, your team must be the owners of it, and have agency in the extension of it.

What does that mean? It means that you’ll start noticing patterns of behaviour, in-jokes, sayings that have developed because of a certain event that only has meaning to you and your team, a pseudo-vocabulary and patois begins to develop.

It’s very important to listen to this and embrace the best parts, because at this point you can start codifying your culture.

The “lingo” of you staff, this proto-culture that is developing, is now developing it’s own inclusive language – understanding it instantly creates an in-group, and an out-group. This can be great, but it can also be absolutely disastrous – we’ll get to that.

The thing to do now is to codify those behaviours you think represent your company culture – no more than five short statements that can be pretty easily remembered. When you write these down, you need to ensure these are written in the patois of your company – they should have those internal “pop-references” built right into them.

When we kicked off in 2017 with our first ten-or-so hires, we had this brain dump as our cultural foundation:

  • There are no stupid questions
  • No Dicks, No Bullshit
  • Have a sense of humour
  • You keep what you kill
  • Be brave & dream

(Some of them are pretty impenetrable to a non-Tykling, right? Well not if you went through our founders intro! Later on I’ll show you what these evolved into.)

Why make them so culture-dependent? Because your staff coined some of them, and your founding team know the history and story behind the sayings – by codifying them, you are codifying something that they have created and own. That agency and ownership does two important things:

  1. It ensures that your founding staff are automatically cultural ambassadors, they are in the “in-group”, and that means that they will be wearing the cultural values as a badge of honour when they hire the next tranche of new staff.
  2. You begin to build company lore.

History and Lore

The second point here is probably the best thing about running a start-up – founders and founding teams go through all kinds of stuff to get through their first year – and they make decisions that change the company in ways you really can’t predict. When these events – this oral history – find their way into the sub-culture and patois of your team, and then your team find them framed on a wall in the office – each of those statements, each of those cultural staples you want to encourage have a story.

People love stories, stories are much easier to remember than facts, and it will make sure that your cultural values are remembered by your team, and all the growth that follows.

The thing to constantly remember at this point is that: your culture will change, and it’s your staff that set the tone – at this point, you just guide it.

Our cultural values in 2022 are the same in intent, but different:

  1. It’s OK to screw up
  2. The only stupid idea, is the untested one
  3. Trust starts with you, make it count
  4. Assume best intent
  5. Make it better

Far clearer, and an evolutionary change from what we as founders thought was good. Some stuff is now left unsaid, because we don’t need to: “There are no stupid questions” is now so ingrained into how we speak and welcome folks at Tyk that it’s no longer in the core list of values, but it’s central to how we operate.

I take this stuff incredibly seriously, and I think it’s something others should too – it’s why we work so hard at Tyk to become Flexa accredited, and have baked our work/life culture right into our recruitment benefits

Risks and Toxicity

I did say that I would get to the risks here – the biggest risk with building culture around an in-group is that if that group is not open and welcoming to new members – and more importantly, if you are not willing to re-evaluate your company cultural credos in light of your new-staff, and in turn the companies cultural evolution – you run the risk of a toxic group of “insiders” developing, and a constant us-vs-them attitude between tranches.

Avoid toxicity like the plague, and be ruthless about it. Toxic inward focussed teams fester, become unproductive, and can get so bad they can put the whole company at risk (I would tell you a story about this, maybe over a drink, in a dark pub, away from prying eyes).

So when guiding the culture of your start-up, a constant principle that you – as a founder, and ambassador of the company culture – need to encourage is an open and safe environment for your team.

Culture is a double edged-sword, build it right, and you will blossom, build it wrong, and create a war-torn hell-scape that rips itself apart.

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