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BOOTSTRAPPING

We're Big. But We Still Want To Be Us
 

Here's how to keep your company culture alive even when you're growing like gangbusters.

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For many entrepreneurs, their companies are an extension of themselves. Founders, especially those who bootstrap, often start with a vision and then invest every waking hour--and every dollar--into building a company that answers a personal calling. For this reason, it’s common for a bootstrapped company to have a unique culture based on the founder’s vision and personality.

But what happens to this culture when your company begins to grow from a baby into a behemoth? Is it possible to preserve your company’s unique founding culture even when you no longer know every employee by name? When you have branch offices, and global customers?

As your company grows, it takes effort to preserve the original spirit that helped shape your success, but it is possible--and worth it. Here’s what we’ve learned by working with successful bootstrapped companies.

Define

Too often, founders of bootstrapped companies forget to define their company’s core values, vision, and culture. Most founders live and breathe their company’s mission every day, but they don’t take the time to articulate that vision to their teams, customers, and partners. Imparting company culture through osmosis may work in the beginning, but as you grow, cultural “trickle down” stops working across diverse teams and departments. Think about what defines your company’s culture, then write it down as a mission statement or short manifesto.

Early on, Carlos Antequera, CEO of Netchemia, realized it would be hard to scale without putting culture front-and-center in his company’s hiring process. After working with his management team to capture and write down six core company values, he tested them with the rest of the company’s employees to make sure they resonated, and then printed up the final ‘manifesto.’ Today, these six core company values play a key role in hiring. Every applicant meets with at least five current employees and is evaluated against the company’s core values through specific interview questions. Using this values-first approach, Netchemia has tripled the size of its team while still retaining its unique culture.

Systemize

It may seem counterintuitive to put policies and systems in place to promote a particular feeling or a vibe, but that’s exactly what you need to do to preserve your company culture. If your manifesto states, “We are a company that supports creativity, gives back to our community, and encourages experimentation,” you’ve got to do more than just to say it. You’ve got to implement policies that give employees time to experiment with new projects, let them take time off to volunteer, and make sure their creative ideas are heard.

Glen Margolis, founder and CEO of Steelwedge Software, works hard to maintain a collaborative spirit within his company, reflecting the collaborative nature of Steelwedge’s technology products, which are used to improve supply chain efficiency. Margolis is committed to keeping all his employees linked together and communicating well, even though the company has more than doubled its workforce  in the past two years. To ensure the company maintains its culture as it scales, Glen takes a global tour once a year to visit each of Steelwedge’s offices in North America, Europe and Asia. And after 90 days on the job, each new employee gets a chance to personally provide Glen with feedback via a Skype video-conferencing system.

The company also instituted an annual employee survey about company values and culture. One survey found employees valued the company’s charity work at an Indian orphanage. So, to encourage participation in Jive, a social business software tool, Steelwedge donated a supply of rice to the orphanage in honor of the person with the highest number of meaningful contributions on Jive.

Celebrate

Company culture is just that, culture. Remember to celebrate what’s unique about your company and revel in what makes it different. You don’t have to throw big parties; instead, make sure to do little things on a regular basis that reinforce your company’s core beliefs. Is it part of your company culture to promote health and wellness? Hire a massage therapist one afternoon a month, allow employees to cut out early once a quarter to go skiing or surfing, or hold an outdoor sports day picnic.

PayLease, a San Diego-based company, has turned its work hard/play hard culture into ongoing contests, ping pong tournaments, and an annual charity golf tournament that it organizes. Management often organizes fun events, like an employee Olympics event held in conjunction with the Summer Olympics. Employees have made it a tradition to bring the company flag on trips all over the world, taking photos of themselves with it in exotic locations. And at PayLease’s monthly all-hands meeting, executives present an “Over-The-Top” award to one employee who did exemplary work. The prize, a can of tuna nailed to a wooden base, has no value and won’t make any sense to someone who doesn’t work at the company, but it’s a source of pride for employees and an example of what makes the culture at PayLease unique.

As the founder or CEO of your company, you are the carrier of its ‘secret sauce.’ Without your unique founding culture, your business wouldn’t have grown into a profitable and successful company. Make sure everything you do communicates your vision to employees, customers, and partners to keep that culture alive and thriving.

Last updated: Jul 2, 2013

GAVIN TURNER AND C. JASON PAYNE: Gavin M. Turner and C. Jason Payne are the co-founders of Mainsail Partners, a San Francisco growth equity firm that invests in successful bootstrapped businesses. They have invested nearly $400 million in entrepreneurs striving to take their business beyond start-up to the next level.




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