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Growing? How to Maintain Your Start-up Culture

Your business may be getting bigger but that doesn't mean you need to lose the cool company culture of your early days.
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A lot of people get into start-ups to avoid the stuffy suit-and-org-chart style culture of big companies. But if you're good (and a bit lucky) and the business you founded starts to grow, you're faced with a challenge--how do you keep that inspiring, humane and relaxed vibe of the early days going even if your company is now far from just four people in a garage?

Thankfully, it may be a tricky question but it's one lots of experienced entrepreneurs have weighed in on, offering tips to founders following in their footsteps. Most recently Fast Company posed this question to some folks who have experienced rapid growth in their businesses and got some intriguing suggestions, including:

Grow the Staff, Not the Teams. As part of its due diligence process, CityGrid hunts for startups with a strong sense of company culture, even if it’s only shared among three people--the size of Urbanspoon’s staff was when it was acquired. Still based in Seattle, Urbanspoon’s ranks have swelled to 70 people and counting, but true to its roots, the vibe is still casual. There are no corporate titles listed on the Web site and all headshots are candid photos of staff tucking into a favorite dish.

[SVP of consumer businesses Kara] Nortman says that’s due to a CityGrid-wide practice of keeping the size of teams and meetings manageable. “Even if you become bigger, you should size your teams so they have a clear feeling of ownership,” she offers, “That’s instantly more important than a boss telling you what to do.” Likewise, Nortman advises hammering out how many meetings will be required to make any decision and then determine how many people should attend. “You want to make those decisions and fail quickly instead of waiting for 17 people to say yes,” she adds.

Pay People to Leave.  Culture isn’t passed through osmosis at the water cooler. When Clate Mask, CEO of Infusionsoft, talks about the early days (in a garage) of the sales and marketing software company, he references family and fun as often as he cites innovation from within, faster execution, and fierce loyalty. He admits it’s been a challenge to keep that “one big happy” feeling as the company grew to 300 employees, but is on track to beef up to 1,000 in three years. “We believe we can keep this forever as long as we are intentional. We wanted to dispel the notion that you can’t scale culture.”

To do this as Infusionsoft adds about 10 to 15 people per month, each new hire must go through a two-week intensive orientation. When that’s complete, they are offered $5,000--to leave (a practice made famous by Zappos). “It’s expensive to have the wrong people,” Mask says, “This gives the individual an opportunity to assess if they are really committed.”

Check out the complete article for several more tips. Fast Company isn't the only media outlet weighing in on this question though--HBR blogs and VentureBeat have also dished out advice. Both posts offer less surprising ideas but their suggestions are similar in several ways. What's the key takeaway both posts agree on? Communication with your staff is key to retaining a cool company culture as you grow.

"The first thing to do is spend more time communicating with and listening to your employees. Identify the influencers and loudmouths and take them out to dinner," suggests Karen Rubin, a product manager at HubSpot, on HBR. She also advises founders to "hold town hall meetings with your whole team, and let them voice their complaints."

Zikria Syed, the CEO and co-founder of NextDocs, agrees on VentureBeat. "Company culture should and does evolve with the growth of the company and over time. If employees of the company actively participate in building the culture, then it thrives and gets better over time," he says.

If you retained your start-up vibe as your company grew, how did you manage it?

Last updated: Sep 3, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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