The Importance of Culture to a Start-up


The Importance of Culture to a Start-up

Diego Lozada and Jeffrey Camp

“I have yet to see a company succeed without a strong culture” said Sebastian Meja Founder and CEO of Rappi.  Meja, and Marco Fisbhen - Founder of Descomplica - were speaking on the importance of company culture to a start-up’s success to the audience of the Softbank Operator School.  The ‘Cane Angel Network and the University of Miami have worked with Softbank to put together this 12-week crash course in entrepreneurial excellence.  

“Leadership is culture management”, Fisbhen adds, “to ensure a strong culture develops at a start-up requires intentional and ongoing effort”.   A culture is “not a set of values you paste on the wall”. It also is “Not one, not once” where one person mentions the culture and values once.  Culture happens in a group, and the more people who are living and relaying it the more it will seep into the company. 

Cultures are the virtues and behaviors that begin at the inception of a company and work as a glue by maintaining the people together with a mission of impact while empowering leadership. They are unique, authentic, and are what people look at when searching for a personal and professional growth in any institution. A good way to define culture is: “ accumulated, shared learnings around patterns or systems of beliefs, values and behaviors that have worked well enough to be considered valid and taught to new members”, Fisbhen continued.  Okay, but how?

There are two fundamental parts of a culture: contents and structure.  The first is company specific, and a strong culture can not be built just from what one might take from another company.  Structure, however, has common features among successful companies, and so Fisbhen focused his discussion here.

“Cultures develop inside of three categories”, Fisbhen explained, and these are:

  • Artifacts: Visible structures and processes of the company and the observable behaviors of its leadership and employees.
  • Beliefs and values: These are the ideals, goals and values for the company, the rationalization for the company’s existence.
  • Basic underlying assumptions: This is the unconscious behavior, perceptions and feelings that make up the DNA of the company and its culture.  This is where leadership and culture management play a significant role.  The “feeling” that want people to have, in good times and bad, must be embedded in the culture, and this is done intentionally and as a group.  Remember it is “Not one, not once.  Culture happens in a group”.

Choosing the right culture for a startup is harder than some may think. This comes because new companies do not have track of what works and what doesn’t. They start since the creation of the company and grow alongside by it, always maintaining the core values but leaving some flexibility for improvement and effectiveness.

Leaders of start-ups must embed the culture they want in the company and see it as central to their mission.  This is because culture solves for two things: 1) external adaptation; and 2) internal integration.  A company’s culture solves for the relationship between the company and its market – your business model and how you approach and adapt to the market.  A luxury goods company in China will have a different culture from an Edtech company in Brazil.  It also solves for the relationship between the company and the individuals who work there – how as you hire and scale will directly be a product of the culture you foster. 

Maintaining the culture through the years could be challenging but rewarding when they represent the principles of their people. It is a responsibility that needs to be reinforced and practiced every day. Making the values visible - written on the wall - can be a daily reinforcement for the employees of the company.

Startups need to develop an organizational design while having a mission for innovation. Challenge people to work out of their zone of comfort, cheer their effort, focus on what matters, provide enough space to members for them to be able to work efficiently, and apply intensiveness to every duty during the way.

Culture is represented by how employees think, talk, and express about the company. It needs abstraction to be made while solving for external adaption and internal integration. It needs to be simple and easy to understand but deep in the soul of the people. Make them habits and focus on an intense communication.

Culture can sound easy and irrelevant, but it is the heart and soul of any living company. It goes side to side with any strategy and it could be the success or detrimental of any idea. When culture is properly supported it starts with people believing in the company’s goals and values, thinking about them regularly and living through them on a daily basis. Make people to believe in it, to live by it, and to preach for it.

This page was written by Diego Lozada and Jeffrey Camp. Mr. Lozada is a member of Cane Angel Network investment team and is an international student from Venezuela. Mr. Lozada pursued an undergraduate at Texas A&M University and is currently in the Master of Science in Finance program at the University of Miami. Mr. Camp is the Managing Director of the Cane Angel Network.