Reflections and learnings on building a company’s team and culture

 

In 2014, Startup Guide began with the idea of creating a simple guidebook for entrepreneurs on how to navigate and startup in Berlin. Today, we are in 17 different cities in Europe and the Middle East and have opened two physical stores in Berlin and Lisbon to promote and sell products by startups.

It’s been a great journey—both beautiful and sometimes painful, as I imagine it is for anyone who tries to start and run a company. Although we have a lot of exciting things in the pipeline for 2018, I’d like take some time to use the beginning of the year to reflect and look back on one of my biggest learnings from building up Startup Guide.

 

“Work hard and be nice to people”

 

Five years ago—just before the Startup Guide journey began—I bought my very first poster. I was a never a fan of hanging posters in my bedroom as a child, but for the first time, a poster really caught my eye. It was a work by British designer Anthony Burrill with the words: “Work hard and be nice to people.” The poster seemed to speak to me more deeply than a thousand words of wisdom or pieces of advice ever could – and also became my own personal mantra.

 

Since Startup Guide started, the biggest challenge has been transitioning from being a solo player doing everything myself to being very hands-on with a small team to now stepping back to focus on strategy and culture. This change has been crucial for the company’s survival and evolution, but it certainly hasn’t been an easy one.

In the very beginning, I was incredibly naive to believe I could do everything myself. I quickly learned it’s impossible to go it alone and building up a team would be crucial for Startup Guide to achieve any kind of success. This is when the poster played a big role in my development as a business owner and leader.

In most companies, the team behind building the products and making the magic are rarely the ones who benefit from the wealth generated by a business in the long run. I want to believe and show with Startup Guide that things can be done differently – that it’s possible to build a business that generates large shareholder returns without sacrificing employee morale and relationships with our partners along the way. In other words, I believe we need to pursue purpose alongside profit and we need to do better business by being less greedy.

Greed and shortsightedness were indisputably some of the main causes of the financial crisis in 2007-2008 and continue to be a problem for many businesses operating these days. I believe we need to start redefining what success means for a company or startup. Instead of only seeing success as what’s on the bottom line, we need to consider other measures as well.

What if ‘success’ is measured by asking employees about their work satisfaction? Or attached to the number of jobs you created for your suppliers? What if ‘success’ is measured by the number of customers who have been positively impacted by your product or service? Maybe if we begin rethinking our own definitions of success and how to get there, we’ll have more companies with strong, scalable and sustainable businesses that benefit more than just a few shareholders.

Having said that, I know how hard this is to achieve. It’s been a process for myself trying to disrupt some of the organizational patterns that have been set in stone for years. I also find myself looking to companies who have achieved traditional ideas of ‘success’, which generate huge profits or get sold for millions. However, after getting a peek into what it’s like on the other side, I realized that people have had to sacrifice their health and personal lives in order to get there.

Undoubtedly, there were times when I didn’t practice what I preached because I was so focused on getting by and surviving that I simply wasn’t in the headspace to understand what it actually meant to “work hard and be good to people”. Instead, I was in more of a “work hard, work fast and make other people do the same”-mentality when I should have been curious and open to the team’s considerations. Sometimes, I didn’t ask about what their opinions of our values were or how they envisioned our expansion strategy or whether working from home would be a good idea. Only recently did I fully understand and learn how to execute my personal mantra when it comes to building up Startup Guide… by actively building a company culture.   

 

 

Team and culture are the backbone of a company

So, what does ‘culture’ mean exactly? According to my best friend Google, culture is “The ideas, customs, and social behaviours of a particular people or society.” As Jason Cohen, CEO and founder of WP Engine, put it, simply, “Every company has a culture. The only question is whether or not you decide what it is.”

Finally, I understood—in practice—what I’ve heard many times before: that a company’s culture is made of its history and narrative alongside a shared vision and mission, core values and workplace norms. I also realized that even though I might have had an idea about what these things were, it wasn’t clearly defined.

In the past year, Startup Guide has grown from a few full-time employees and some freelancers to a team of over 16 people. As the team rapidly grew, it came to light that we needed to align old and new members to our vision, mission and values in order to scale effectively and sustainably.

The retreat

Coincidentally, I met Daniel Ospina, CEO of organizational design consultancy Conductal, in Porto about a month ago. Around that time, I had been planning Startup Guide’s first real off-site retreat in Portugal’s Alentejo region so everyone could directly connect with each other in a relaxed setting and we could show our commitment to those who helped build up the company this year. Not only that, we had recently enlisted the help of Bunch, a Berlin-based startup aiming to help companies align their culture with strategy, so the timing seemed perfect. After my inspiring chat with Daniel, I decided to invite him along to our getaway to help hone in on our company’s structure and processes.

During the three-day retreat, Daniel led a series of workshops in between meals and team-bonding activities to clarify Startup Guide’s culture and facilitate the alignment of a diverse team to the company’s identity without groupthink. For me, one of the key takeaways was realizing that the team is the essence of the company. From the very beginning, Startup Guide has been built upon relationships based on trust and transparency—whether with readers, partners or sponsors–and now it’s clearer than ever that the team is our biggest asset. Without the people who make up the soul of Startup Guide, the mission doesn’t add up to anything.

As mentioned, up until this point Startup Guide was driven by a set of unwritten company values. So it was helpful that one of the exercises involved tweaking Startup Guide’s mission, vision and values collaboratively as a team. It was a great experience to hear them voice their opinions and engage in honest conversations about the key aspects of the company. As it turned out, the strongest value we all agreed on was ‘relationships’, which basically highlights how important it is for us to be good to each other and our surroundings.

#1 value:
Relationships: Whether it’s with readers, employees, sponsors or partners, we aim to build a transparent and trustworthy relationship. We believe openness and honesty—about the good and the bad—are keys to success when collaborating internally and with our stakeholders.

 

Looking ahead to 2018

With the ever-changing nature of a startup and the roles of a CEO, it feels like I’m stepping into a new job every year. I’m incredibly grateful to be surrounded by a team and partners that trust me in this position, even when I occasionally stumble. One thing is for sure, I know I have a huge responsibility. And even though it’s not always easy to make the right decisions during tough times, I will always work as hard as I can to help Startup Guide succeed, without sacrificing other people to do so. 

Without further ado, happy 2018 everybody! Let’s create more meaningful jobs, projects and companies together, where we can all win a little more.

Blog Post Author

Sissel Hansen

CEO & Founder