8 Companies To Learn From When Establishing Culture At Your Startup


This article originally appeared in slightly different form on Inc.com and is shared with permission.


Remember when all it took for a company to seem innovative were a few beanbag chairs, a couple beer kegs, and a ping-pong table?


To be fair, virtually anyone would welcome all of the above in their workplace, but we’ve come a long way from the early days of the startup economy when a “best place to work” was essentially a conventional office with a ball pit in the middle. (Nothing against ball pits!)


It’s 2016, and forward-thinking organizations are taking a holistic approach to company culture, challenging old norms regarding benefits, compensation, management structure, purpose, and everything in between.


For those who occupy leadership positions in new startups and small businesses, it’s an exciting and challenging time. You may feel both inspired and intimidated by others in your industry, eager not to become a toxic workplace and lose top talent to competitors whose practices offer better incentives. How can you ensure your company’s culture reflects your values, keeps current employees satisfied, and stands out to potential applicants? And, with limited resources, how should you determine which initiatives are worth investing in, and which amount to nothing more than, well, a ping-pong table?


If you’re asking these questions now, don’t stop. Take a look at seven companies who demonstrate what substantive, positive company culture really means:

Boston Consulting Group: Culture Stems from Employee Well-Being

Boston Consulting Group frequently ranks toward the top of lists that recognize companies for outstanding workplace cultures. The firm has earned acclaim for a number of reasons—paid sabbaticals, flexible work schedules, professional development programs, measures to improve diversity, on-demand learning portals—which can all be summed up as a simple fact: BCG takes care of its employees.


The team members at BCG have some of the most high-pressure jobs imaginable, but rather than attempting to reframe language or attitudes around that work, the company takes active steps to create an environment that breeds support and gives employees tools to accomplish their objectives. Accordingly, they feel responsible and empowered rather than coddled.


Takeaway: Telling your team to “shape up or ship out” isn’t going to fly in any setting. It’s about creating a symbiotic relationship instead: individual team members take care of business when the business takes care of its team.


Hootsuite: Shout Your Culture to the Heavens

The team at Hootsuite, the world’s most widely used social media management platform are fully aware of the importance of sharing. So it’s only natural that their culture has viral qualities such as a trending hashtag, #hootsuitelife, both internally and externally.


What helps is the #humblebrag pieces circling the internet—no shame in their game either. Hootsuiters such as VP of Talent, Ambrosia Vertesi to founder and CEO, Ryan Holmes have documented the ins and outs of #Hootsuitelife. But what caught my eye right off the bat was the Hootsuite Manifesto SlideShare I came across on LinkedIn. Built for and by people across multiple teams, this gives existing teammates a vehicle to express the qualities they enjoy and admire about the place they call their “nest”.


Takeaway: Communicating your culture goes far beyond a heart-warming marketing and recruiting tactic—it’s the number one way to ensure the members of your team know what you expect of them based on your values. Writing a manifesto isn’t an easy process. Putting a finger on those je-ne-sais-pas like qualities you’re looking for can be difficult, but the end result will be worth your time spent soul-searching.


Whole Foods: Growth Equals Job Creation

The stereotype that supermarkets mostly offer temporary employment doesn’t apply to Whole Foods. The grocery chain takes employee retention seriously, starting with recruitment and ending with succession planning. It also emphasizes diversity—not only in hiring practices, but workplace policies designed to support racial, sexual, and gender minorities, as well as flexible schedules that help new parents and those with disabilities.


By providing careers for anyone and everyone, Whole Foods has reaped a mutual advantage. Today, the company is one of the world’s top job creators, adding nearly 60,000 team member positions over the course of the last 17 years.


Takeaway: Talent can come from anybody, no matter what gender, age, race, socioeconomic background, or education level. When interviewing candidates look for those who are dedicated, humble, but also confident enough to rise to a challenge. In a matter of years, someone who started in an entry-level role weeks after college graduation, or your part-time assistant finishing his or her degree could be the right person to direct their own team toward the vision of the company.


Pinterest: Intersecting Unique Perspectives & Common Interests Takes Conscious Thought

Pinterest may have trumped both Reddit and StumbleUpon for the title of most time-sucking pseudo-search engine in existence. With that claim to fame, came rapid expansion. Growing from an 11 person team to more than 400 employees worldwide in just 4 years, the highly-addictive interest-based content dispenser has put everything into its people and culture. As Leslie Kincaid, Pinterest’s Workplace Operations Specialist puts it “culture can organically happen and develop itself, but you need people actively thinking about it and talking about it on a regular basis.”


Just as the interface aggregates content by interest, so does the company aggregate its people by similar threads. Led by Kincaid, Pinterest founded a Culture Club made up of team members from every office across the globe. Their biggest breakthrough was mining data from the pinboards of every employee to find shared interests. From there, interest groups were formed that allow those from different backgrounds, geographic locations, and parts of the company to bond over shared enthusiasm for relatively anything!


Takeaway: Not everyone we hire at indinero is going to think reading 100 books a year is as exhilarating as I do. Which is why having a culture club or committee is so essential. Like any good democracy, the individuals should be what shapes your activities based on what they’re interested in. That said, if our Portland, Ore. office wants to have a book club, I won’t object.


Maptia: Make the Most of Limitations and Treat Work Like an Adventure

Maptia is a storytelling platform for writers, photographers, and travelers. While the company could have stayed in Seattle, firmly situated in a tech startup sweet spot, its leadership decided that if their brand promise was seeing the world, they would need to do it themselves.


At the same time, investment capital was running low and the U.K.-born founders’ visas were about to expire. So, Maptia took its manifesto to heart and relocated its headquarters to Taghazout, a 12-mile fishing village on the Moroccan coast. Over the better part of a year, Maptia’s employees lived and worked together, discovering what drove them and what kind of organization they wanted to be.


Described as a “nomadic startup,” they’ve since spent stints in Chile, Switzerland, and Bali.


Takeaway: When the going gets tough, follow your own advice. Especially if it leads you to Morocco… I draw some parallels between this story and indinero’s pivot. Running out of capital can cause a business to do crazy things, but ideally, it makes leadership look inward for ways to make it out alive and thriving on the other side. Luckily for both Mapita and indinero, culture can benefit from breaking points like these.


TeamSnap: Sharing Is Caring

Leave it to a team management app to establish a workplace designed around nothing but teamwork. Every day, TeamSnap’s developers program in pairs but this arrangement differs from similar setups thanks to the company’s core principles: employees are not burdened by rules or strict performance measurements, but are encouraged to focus on learning from one another.


Development meetings are open to anyone who wants to attend, so every project fundamentally reflects the abilities and aspirations of the whole team instead of a particular engineer or sub-group. As a result, the company’s culture stays dynamic and inclusive.


Takeaway: Can you think of a better way to eliminate egos? While measuring performance is important, minimizing finger pointing and blame is a better way to keep the bigger shared goals at top of mind. There’s a lot you can learn when your mind is open, but so often we’re closed in on what we can do to avoid shitting the bed. Working together is a great way to garner new perspective on solving old problems.

PluralSight: Trust and Optimism Go Hand-in-Hand

Like TeamSnap, PluralSight also refuses to let culture get stagnant. The tech training platform has only two rules for its employees: be kind, courteous, and respectful; and always do what’s in the company’s and customer’s best interests.


This level of trust is concretized in workplace policies such as unlimited vacation and travel, as well as loose boundaries around job roles. While PluralSight’s ideology may seem blindly optimistic, employees report that positive energy “permeates the entire company.” Team members, management, and customers all understand and act in accordance with the company’s culture because it keeps them happy.


Takeaway: This example affirms my belief that your employees should be treated like adults and should have reasonable flexibility when it comes to work and life. When you set expectations and hire people that are devoted to a mission or purpose, you can trust that they don’t have to be babysat to deliver results. From there, giving them space and respect will only make them happier, healthier teammates.


Softwire: Invest in Creativity and Morale

I’m rounding off this list with a company whose culture includes a simple practice that would be feasible for any startup. Softwire is a software development firm in the U.K. that treats its employees to a comprehensive suite of perks: a private gym, lunch cooked by an on-site chef, various opportunities for open discussion, and—yes—a recreation room (no mention of ping-pong, however!).


But aside from those luxuries, what stands out to me are the company’s music lessons and morale budget. Softwire offers employees vocal and drum lessons with a professional teacher, and also makes sure to dedicate a certain amount of revenue each year to nothing but fun—in the form of picnics, parties, game tournaments, and more.


Takeaway: Make sure you make a well-rounded investment in your team. Maybe you can’t swing on-site chefs, private gym memberships, or music lessons. That doesn’t mean you can’t find craftier ways to help them enjoy good food, health and wellness, and creative enrichment. As a leader, it feels good to make your team happy in ways that filter deeper than just their job function.


Where to start building your company culture:

This listicle may have many common themes and ideas (I’m sure you can tell I put a lot of emphasis on growth), but it doesn’t make sense to implement them all at the same time. One thing you should start with, and this may sound painfully obvious, is identifying what is working already.


What do you like about your team and current culture? And conversely, what would be the one thing you eliminate about your dynamic?


These things develop organically as you form your team, no matter how small. And once you start looking for those gold nuggets (or mud piles) you can identify what you value and what you want your business to look like in the years to come. From there, make sure you write it down.