Employee Engagement & Retention

Startup Culture: Why You Want It, and How To Get It

By Larry Spring

Last updated: Feb 15, 2023

    Table of contents

The reality of startup culture is not about quirky perks and more about the rules that guide how work gets done within an organization.

Getty Images.
Getty Images.

*Dr. Laurence T. Spring has served as an educator for 30 years, including 15 as a superintendent. He is a consultant to organizations and schools, specializing in change management and equity issues. He writes about the obstacles that prevent effective change management and how organizations can overcome them. *


Startup culture has been romanticized to mean a work culture that serves every non-work-related recreational pursuit from video game arcades to nap-pods. The reality is less about these quirky perks, which really don’t define an organization’s culture, and more about the rules that guide how work gets done within an organization.

Startups ‌need to be more nimble and responsive than established corporations, which are more rule-bound and invested in reliability. Whether your organization is brand new, or simply needs to be more nimble to respond to a rapidly changing environment, creating a startup culture could be the right move for you.

The importance of culture

Organizational culture, as a concept, is difficult to define and is often confused with climate. While an organization’s climate is more about those tangible things that people can see — the quirky chairs or the ping-pong table in the conference room — organizational culture is more about accepted practices that are so embedded that people are only tacitly aware of them. In one of his best-known quotes, organizational scholar Edgar Schein described organizational culture as “the way we do things around here.” Culture is the set of rules that guides how people think and solve problems.

All organizations have a culture or even several subcultures. These organizational norms will either evolve on their own or can be purposefully grown and nurtured by leadership. Paying attention to the type of culture you desire for your company and how you want people to feel will determine how work gets done. If you want your organization to be nimble and responsive to a rapidly changing environment, crafting a startup culture might be helpful.

Creating vs. changing culture

Creating an organizational culture is always easier than changing an established organizational culture. However, the basics remain the same: Be clear about the values of the culture you are creating, look for ways to incent innovation and to speed up processes, flatten hierarchies to minimize barriers and increase communication and make everyone feel safe enough to take risks.

When creating an organizational culture in a new organization, you can hire specifically for that culture. The organization is still small enough that adjustments can be instantaneous, and there is very little organizational inertia to battle. When you’re working to change an organization’s culture, you want to ‌diagnose current issues, devise interventions and battle the inertia that comes with size and time. Thinking about how to create these organizational norms is at least as important as thinking about your strategic plan.

Espoused values vs. values in action

Creating culture in an organization begins with values. Understanding the values and beliefs you hold tight is important to helping you shape the culture of your organization. Take some time to write ‌out the values that you hope your organization will embody when it is running exactly as you hope. These statements are the organization’s espoused values. Once you have these written down you can look at specific areas of organizational activity to see how they play out. Specifically, look at how time, money and people are deployed. The use of these resources will tell you what the organization’s values in action are. From there, it is easy to see any differences from the espoused values.

Incentivize innovation

A significant part of startup culture is innovation. Everyone wants to be first to the next great idea, but corporate culture is about giving people clear direction and then ensuring that they implement in error free ways. Startup culture requires lots of experimentation, and, inherently, lots of errors along the way. Getting people to experiment and find great ideas requires some special incentives for risk-taking.

Most importantly, check your own behavior and make sure you don’t punish anyone for taking a risk that doesn’t work out. If your team can read disappointment or anger on your face when their idea didn’t work out, it will keep them from trying something new, next time. Second, build in rewards for novel ideas, even if they don’t work out. Of course, you can build in better rewards for more successful ideas. Last, remember that collaboration produces more than competition. Competition encourages isolation and knowledge hoarding while collaboration increases shared knowledge and increased likelihood of success. Building teams that will work together and problem solve collaboratively is key to innovation.

Remove barriers

Barriers to solutions come in many forms, and they are not always readily visible. As a leader, you need to actively find what things are getting in the way of your team’s success. Sometimes these barriers are as easy to spot as a bottleneck in the authorization process, or a problem with a particular supplier. More often, these barriers are more difficult to spot and have to do with team dynamics. Understanding how team members interact and what is inhibiting or promoting progress will help you uncover hidden obstacles to team success.

Oftentimes one or two members of a team struggle to blend in with the team dynamic. In these instances, the sooner you recognize where the problem is and understand the nature of it, the sooner you can intervene and help things get back online. Sometimes individuals need a little redirection or an ego check, other times, they need stronger guidance on what role you are asking them to play on the team. On rare occasions, it might require switching someone out of a team. Removing someone from a team is not something to be taken lightly or done capriciously as it will likely be seen as punitive and create some inhibition among other team members.

Make everyone feel secure

The beating heart of startup culture is a feeling of safety that people need. For people to take the risks that startup culture requires, they need to feel that they will be protected and that failure will not be punished. More fundamentally than behavior, identity is a key element to making everyone feel safe in your organization.

Ensuring that everyone feels safe is not nearly as simple as many think it is. Inclusivity includes thoughtful planning and careful implementation. Learning about how people different from you experience the world and do or do not feel included is a good first step. Don’t presume to know what will make others feel included or marginalized.

Good leaders practice humility in this space and seek the knowledge of others. Making inclusivity an explicit value and creating concrete goals will go a long way towards helping others learn what needs to change to create a more inclusive culture.

Creating a very inclusive environment has two tangible benefits for your startup. First, the research is clear that diverse teams outperform homogeneous ones. It is to your benefit to be aggressive in a diverse workforce that will give you a leg up on the competition. Second, when your staff feels safe and embraced they are able to spend more of their energy on the problem at hand.

Knowing the difference between culture and climate, being clear with yourself about what culture you desire for your organization, incentivizing that culture and making everyone feel safe will have your organization on the fast track to success.

Sign up now: Stay up to date, level up and hire better with our behind the scenes newsletters at the world’s top startups.

The ORG helps
you hire great

Free to use – try today