How to build a winning culture at a startup

Learn to promote and celebrate core values in all you do and trim the fat getting in the way of your startup success.

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A startup may begin with a single individual but to develop into a real business, a one-man band needs to transform into a high-performance team, with a winning company culture to match it.

Where large organisations can leverage huge teams of people, we instead have to work highly efficiently. As an early-stage startup, the stakes are high, and the difference between good and great is the difference between success and failure. You have to work more like an elite sports team than a family – with stars in every position. Then it comes down to doing everything in your power to make sure the team excels.

It all starts with hiring the very best people. I first started my tech startup, Zero Gravity, straight out of university from my childhood bedroom. Once I’d established the business and attracted angel investment, I started building a team to make my idea real. I’d never even had a job before, so I didn’t have any experience of what a successful team in a workplace looked like.

Now, I’ve built a team of 25 people working full-time at Zero Gravity HQ. Not only have we scaled our platform and digital community, we’ve won three awards for our values-driven culture – winning the Hyer Award for culture, landing in Escape the City’s Top 100 companies to work for and being named as one of Tempo’s Top 100 hiring heroes. As Peter Drucker says, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Without a standout workplace culture, your strategy will never even get off the ground. Our business success has been predicated on building a fantastic culture from scratch, with no previous blueprint to work from.

So how did we come to build this winning culture? Well, as with most things involving people, there’s no set formula. But here are some of my top tips on how to build a culture that defies the odds.

Craft your culture deck

Instead of writing lengthy employee handbooks that gather dust, consider creating a culture deck for your team.

This presentation should bring to life your startup’s mission, values, core beliefs, and expectations. By making it visually engaging and easily digestible, you ensure that your team doesn’t just read it— they internalise and embody it. Also don’t limit this to just being an onboarding tool when you have new joiners. Keep it as a living document that evolves with your company.

Hire slowly, let go quickly

Instead of the typical ‘move fast’ startup mantra, take your time in hiring your team to ensure every single person is a fantastic cultural fit.

This is where having a clearly defined culture deck which you can evaluate candidates against really comes into play. And, if you hire someone where it becomes apparent that they do not fit the culture, let them go quickly. This is what effective probation periods are designed for.

Skills can be learnt over time, but non-alignment with core values and mission is far harder to change, and no amount of performance management can fix a wrong cultural fit.

Never compromise on values

Diverse thinking drives innovation and high-performance. However, there should be uniformity when it comes to core company values. Common values are the foundation of team cohesion and effective decision-making.

Without them it’s impossible to build a team with a clear direction and way of working. Build values based on actual behaviours rather than buzzwords. That way your team can actually make them a way of life.

Ditch the ping pong table

Focus on developing meaningful benefits for your team that drive high-performance over expensive gimmicks that sound good on paper but don’t add real value.

For example, you can ditch the 9-5 by implementing flexible hours outside core meeting times. Let your team adapt their schedule towards their most productive hours, even if it’s in the middle of the evening.

Be the culture you want to create

As the founder of the company, your behaviour sets the culture within your organisation. If you want to create a culture where people take responsibility and ownership, you have to demonstrate these traits yourself.

As such, you should be the first to admit when you’re wrong, unsure, or made a bad decision. This fosters a culture of trust where others will feel empowered to lead with vulnerability.

Kill the annual review

Instead of conducting stress-inducing annual evaluations, implement continuous feedback mechanisms.

This way, your team are able to take control of their personal development on an ongoing basis rather than having to wait for the dreaded yearly review.

Trim meeting fat

Meetings are a boring concept, but they’re key to running an efficient organisation. If you have 20 team members who do 10 hours of meetings per week, that’s over 10,000 hours of meeting time per year.

So, optimise your culture for efficient meetings – make them shorter, more structured, and fewer in number. Every meeting should have a set of outcomes to achieve and conclude with clear next steps – otherwise it’s a pointless meeting.

Celebrate values, not just achievements

Achievements, such as meeting targets or completing projects, shouldn’t be the only things that are celebrated in your startup.

Make sure you also spotlight moments when team members embody company values to an exceptional level. By celebrating these moments you reinforce the importance of the values that actually make it possible to achieve ambitious goals in the first place.

Make your mission a magnet

A compelling mission isn’t just a statement on a wall; it’s the heartbeat of a startup. It attracts, aligns, and motivates your team, creating a shared purpose that transcends the employer-employee relationship.

When everyone understands the ‘why’ behind decisions, you foster a collective drive towards unified goals, not just isolated tasks. This is far more motivating than any compensation scheme or suite of company benefits.

Measure what matters

While revenue and user metrics are crucial, it’s equally important to measure the health of your company culture. Gauge levels of employee satisfaction (eNPS), your ability to retain your best people (regrettable attrition), and adherence to your company’s values (value measures). Just as with product metrics, regular pulse checks and culture surveys can reveal the quantitative and qualitative insights that show where the real work needs to be done.

Small headshot of Joe Seddon founder of Zero Gravity
Joe Seddon, founder and CEO of Zero Gravity

Joe Seddon is the founder & CEO of Zero Gravity, a mission-driven startup that powers talented students from low-opportunity backgrounds into top universities and careers. Joe is one of Europe’s leading social entrepreneurs, having been recognised in the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, named Leader of the Year at Natwest’s SE100 Awards, and honoured in the King’s 2023 Birthday Honours List.

Zero Gravity
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