The Challenging Perception Of Startup Culture

The Challenging Perception Of Startup Culture

Is this what a startup's culture looks like?
Is this what a startup’s culture looks like?

With just 15% of 2015 graduates preferring a job in a large corporation, millennials are increasingly turning their attention towards smaller organizations when they explore career opportunities.

In my experience, many millennials – particularly new graduates or other candidates with limited work experience – are drawn to younger organizations through a combination of personal development, freedom, and what they imagine to be “great culture”. Interestingly, the perception of what startup culture should be is often very different from reality.

Influenced by popular media, millennials imagine a mythical startup life: with free sushi, beanbags, Friday beers, open office landscapes, and sleeping pods.


Meeting the reality of working at a startup may be quite the wake-up call. Whether the company is growing with investors’ money or bootstrapping its way to profitability, it’s hard to justify excessive investment into areas that aren’t aligned with the strategy towards break-even. I’m sure every founder would love to offer great perks to their employees, but the financial reality rarely allows for that at the early stages.

The culture of a company is none of the things mentioned above. Company culture is the collective behavior of all team members. It’s a reflection of the values, explicit or not, the company is based on.

A company should design its culture in a way that helps propel it towards its strategic goals. Different companies have different cultures because they have different strategic goals or believe in different ways of achieving them. There is no right culture for all companies. Culture is the means to an end.

In one of our companies we had two challenges that illustrate the role of culture well: 1) we didn’t have as much collaboration across teams as we would have liked and 2) our people didn’t have as much pride in the product as we would have liked. This doesn’t have to be a challenge per se, but in our case, we firmly believe that both collaboration and the feeling of ownership resulting from pride in our products are essential for building an outstanding product. We, therefore, decided to act to address these challenges.

As organizations grow, it’s hard for any individual to keep a strong bond with everyone. Our organization was no exception. When we were smaller, people would naturally go for lunch together, a drink, or a bite after work. That way everyone would know what everyone was working on and build a bond together. As we grew, this behavior persisted, however only in smaller groups. People would go for lunch with the people they sat next to and worked with daily as opposed to a random mix of new people from other teams. While this was great for the individual teams, it didn’t help the cross-team collaboration.

As our organization grew past 50 people, it became utopic to expect that people with no daily interaction would find a natural way to build a social bond. Even if the social urge would miraculously persist and everyone would decide to go for lunch together, it’s unlikely that they would be able to spontaneously find a venue that could cater for all.

This growth had some side effects – particularly when it came to communication. If you put things into perspective, it’s always harder to reach out to a complete stranger than someone you have met, even briefly. To address this, we wanted to create a forum where our team members could cultivate an informal bond across teams. Accordingly, we dedicated every other Friday afternoon for each of our teams to showcase what they had accomplished in the past fortnight followed by a chance for people to chat across teams over a beer.

The feedback was tremendous. People became happier and cross-team communication improved. It also turned out that for most of our technical people, showcasing their latest work in front of their peers generated far more pride (and nervousness from the pressure to perform) than deploying it to our users in some distant country.

Friday beers may sound like the most trivial thing to do. My point here is not that Friday beers are the holy grail, but that your culture is your behavior. The artifacts, whether in the form of events or perks, you make part of your culture should reflect and resonate with your values. When we value collaboration and pride in our product, we need to find a way to cultivate that and make it an active part of the culture that we live. Values that aren’t lived have no value, after all.

From time to time, I get asked why we don’t offer free sushi to our employees. I’d love to. Maybe one day when we are profitable we will, but until then, we won’t.

Original post by Stefan Bruun  (Founding and Managing Partner at Nova Founders Capital) via