Startup Essentials #1: The “Day 1” Culture Mindset

As the bastardized Peter Drucker quote goes, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast, operational excellence for lunch, and everything else for dinner.”

As much as we feel that company culture has been beaten to death (or punched in the face), culture really does start at Day 1.

Before you start building your team.

Before you have a web presence.

And definitely before you have customers.

Often when entrepreneurs learn that 20% of new businesses survive past their 1st year, the tenacious ones do as much preparation as possible to reduce that percentage and I’d argue, is exactly where culture becomes a key ingredient for your company’s livelihood.

Why? Because the tone you set at the beginning is the sound that’ll reverberate for years to come. The first 100 employees will set the example and in-turn train the next 1,000, and those 1,000 train the next 10,000, and so forth.

Like bearings defining the course of a sailing ship, a culture becomes your latitudinal and longitude coordinates. Otherwise, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there” holds truer than ever.

So where do you start? To begin, you need to accept the fact that the cultural values in action won’t be scalable, and that’s completely okay.

For example, the 1st successful social network, Flickr (yes, before Facebook AND Myspace), had founders who would send an average of 50 messages a day to users so to ignite community building, like embers to kindling.

They didn’t do this because it was their form of customer support, but rather they were contributing to their culture built around community & collaboration.

Second, you need to put customers at the nucleus of your business, not your product.

As silly as it sounds, companies can easily get infatuated with new releases, updates, features, and whatever bells & whistles that make them stand out from the competition, but at the sacrifice of constantly tending to and listening to their audience.

Did you know Flickr’s co-founder, Caterina Fake, personally messaged the first 500 users, regardless if it took her hundreds of hours? Or that Seth Godin claims to personally reply to all email inquiries on his website (tens of thousands over the past 20 years)?

It’s because trends, products, and profits are not at the heart of a company, but customers are.

And third, you need to make a promise to yourself to only recruit those who are 100% culture fits.

There will be world-class candidates and potential business partners that are geniuses, haymakers, and Steve Jobs equivalents, but if they don’t innately bleed and live by the company values, then it’s best to steer the ship away from those sirens.

Besides a recent study showing that employees who fit well with their company had significantly greater job satisfaction, were more likely to stay long term, and had above average job performance, from personal experience I know what it’s like to be culturally out of funk.

While working at a small Seattle-based agency early on, I figured out very quickly that our perspectives, communication style, and philosophy were very different. Needless to say I didn’t stay there very long and made a promise to make culture fit the 1st qualifier when interviewing with any company.

True, it all may seem counter-intuitive and cumbersome to foster 1-1 relationships with your customers, but it really pays exponential dividends in the future.

But there’s a reason why Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia personally flew to New York to get feedback from their first Airbnb hosts in 2010, or Dell Computers used to send repairmen to customer’s homes in their early days; a “culture 1st mindset” is not just a nice-to-have for your business but an essential element for your survival.

If the world’s foremost companies stand by it, why not join them?

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