3 Ways to Create a Thriving Startup Culture

By Tom Petit, Co-Founder of Landis Technologies.

Bean bag chairs, basketball hoops, T-shirts and jeans; signs that say “Keep Exploring”; glass walls that partition the open space — it’s easy to mistake all the glossy shine as “startup culture,” since, well, the basketball hoop is so readily apparent when you first walk into the office. But is it enough to sustain the creativity, ambition and drive to make a startup successful?

People First

Most companies focus their interviews on the candidate’s educational background and professional experience. So when you interview with Landis, you might be surprised by one of the first questions we ask, “What do you like to do when you have a spare afternoon?” We ask this question because we want to know the real you. We want to know what drives you. We want to know that you’ll be comfortable bringing your whole self to work and participating in shaping our culture.

For early-stage companies, first hires are particularly crucial. They set the cultural tone moving forward. After the first 10 people, it becomes more difficult for founders to directly influence the office culture and they have to rely on early employees to perpetuate the startup’s values. Look for people who are grounded, enthusiastic, ambitious and passionate about your mission. Make it a point to take your prospective hires out to lunch and spend hours with them in the office to really get to know them. We learned over sushi that Devika, one of our first hires and a big country music fan, was learning to use chopsticks for her upcoming trip to China. We became excited to work with her and get to know her even better. She’s now a great part of the team.

Diversity of Thought

We’ve all heard this before: be intentional about diversity. But diversity can embody different things. In some workplaces, diversity means ignoring differences and remaining strictly politically correct at all times. In others, it can mean being accepting of backgrounds and experiences different from yours.

Early-stage companies take time to redefine what diversity means to them and why their version of diversity is important. Ask yourselves:

  • Which perspectives are important to build our company?
  • How do we want teammates to feel in the office?

At Landis, we eschew political correctness and don’t hesitate to make fun of each other. My co-founder is French, after all. But what we do value above all else is diversity of thought. We strive to create a space where people can be authentic, bring their experiences to the table and express strong contrarian opinions. (One of our employees has tattoos on half his body that have prompted incredible conversations about his experience in special operation forces!)

When we disagree, we remove egos and converse freely to attack a problem from all angles. Having diverse people in the room is necessary but it’s not enough. Diversity works best when it becomes fully part of the conversation.

Founders’ Role: Walking the Walk

At Landis, Cyril and I decided on a set of six values that were most important to us and the company. When we onboarded our first employee, we walked her through these values and what they meant to us.

But we quickly realized that we needed to do more than simply put our values up on the office wall. We have the biggest impact when we embody these values, when we refer to them in meetings and when we use them explicitly in making decisions. One of our six values is to have an action bias and “embrace failure.” When we started openly high-fiving and celebrating a mistake we made with a contract that cost us $6,000, our team felt empowered to take risks as well.

Another one of our values is to have fun and eat chocolate. We do our best to walk that walk too. So nowadays, when the office runs out of chocolate, teammates voice out that we’re not living up to our values. Cyril and I couldn’t be prouder of that.

Devika Kumar contributed to this article.  

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