The evolution of culture at a startup

Written on 10th December, 2012
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It’s now 2 years since I launched Buffer, and the company has grown from just myself (working from my bedroom) to a team of 7. In the last few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about culture and asking many other founders about different aspects such as having an office, having company values and different forms of communication like team meetings and 1:1 meetings.

One thing I realised recently when talking with Thomas Schranz, the founder of the very cool Blossom, was that we’ve actually got quite a few cool things in place that define the Buffer culture. It occurred to me that the different aspects of the culture were introduced at various times along the 2 year journey so far, and it forms the evolution of culture at Buffer.

Since working on the culture has happened gradually, I wanted to document the things we’ve done for culture at the earliest stage of the startup, since as we go forward it might be more difficult to recall.

Culture as an evolutionary process

It seems rather obvious in hindsight, but only after growing a team over 2 years have I realised just how gradual and progressive building a startup culture is. When I started Buffer, I was a solo founder with no team for 3 months. Clearly, at that stage, there was no “culture”. Then Leo came on board and whilst we certainly talked about our approaches and put some things in place to help us be aligned, we still didn’t think in terms of a culture we we building.

Fast-forwarding to now, where we are 7 people, I find myself thinking about culture a lot and making changes from time to time. Examples of topics that are in my mind are team communication, our approach to customer support, our release cycle time and how transparent we are.

My belief now as a result of looking back at this process is that you can’t think too much about culture when you’re one or two founders, but you naturally need to think about it a lot more once you have a sizeable team. It’s certainly an evolutionary process, not something you just put in place once and never change.

Here is how the Buffer culture has evolved, including some of the specific things we do which shape the culture we have:

Culture is deeply influenced by the founding team

Although company culture is something that is worked on over time and can be adapted a lot, it is heavily affected by the personalities of the founding team. There’s no right or wrong with culture, it is simply a combination of natural personality of the founding team in addition to proactive work to push the culture in a desired direction and to maintain certain values.

A good recent example of this I’ve seen is Ev Williams describing his formula for startup success. One of his points is the following:

When you don’t sleep, eat crap, don’t exercise, and are living off adrenaline for too long, your performance suffers. Your decisions suffer. Your company suffers.

I would agree that for me, this kind of culture is something I choose not to have with Buffer. That said, I see other startups which are very successful and yet they encourage employees to be at work until 11pm and do all night hackathons a lot. In essence, I think it’s up to you to choose the values and build a culture around them.

Since the early days, Leo and I have had a strong focus on self-improvement, always discussing what we’re currently working on and changing our routines. This has influenced the culture we’ve created, and it’s one with an emphasis on working on yourself as much as the startup, with a lot of positive encouragement from everyone in the team.

It’s a choice to be proactive about your culture

The other thing I’ve noticed is that it is a choice for the founder as to whether you choose to ‘create’ a specific culture. I agree with Jason Cohen that with culture, one thing is certain:

Every company has a culture. The only question is whether or not you decide what it is.

This is something I’ve found very interesting to ponder. I’ve met founders where I feel like they have let the culture develop by itself, and it still seems to work. At the same time, I think to build a culture that can inspire people to want to work for you, you will want to take the time to make specific changes to shape it. At Buffer, culture is definitely something we’re starting to be more deliberate about.

On the extreme end of the “proactive” approach to culture, you can take an approach where you hire and fire people very specifically based on their fit with the culture. We are taking a path where we want to focus a lot on culture, so we’ve recently started to think hard about whether the next set of people who come on board are a great fit for the culture we’re creating. We’re definitely inspired by Tony Hsieh’s approach and commitment to great culture:

Even if someone’s great at their job, even if they’re a superstar at their job, if they’re bad for our culture we’ll fire them for that reason alone.

How much do you focus on culture at your startup? Is it something you try to grab a hold of and throw in the direction you want the company culture to go, or do you let it develop naturally? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Photo credit: quami77