The startup world is a sink-or-swim environment. You can find yourself in a perpetual juggling act as you negotiate competing priorities. 

Often you don't begin strategically thinking about culture until it's too late, and when you do realize it's a "thing," it's largely a reactive instead of a proactive endeavor.  The reality is, culture is a company's competitive advantage.

I'm frequently asked about why culture matters at work and when is the right time to think about it. The answer is five words: now, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. You can never start too early, and each day you wait, you're already too late. The further along you get, the more solidified those norms become--both good and bad.

Creating a healthy and positive company culture is tantamount to building a home from the ground up. You have to set a foundation--otherwise, you're relegated to retrofitting, which is far more onerous. Starting from the beginning imbues the effort into your organization's DNA and helps it evolve as you face frontiers unknown.

It doesn't have to be difficult. Here are the five steps you need to make it happen:

1. Be in a mood to include.

When people feel excluded or isolated, organizations don't get their employees full potential. If your goal is to launch your business and grow it, you need everyone in the game contributing to the bottom line. Be what I call an "active includer."

As a leader, you need to be the model of inclusion and set the tone for it. Otherwise, you risk wasting talent.

Worse: There's a tangible cost when folks disengage at work. According to Gallup, 53 percent of workers are "not engaged," meaning their work is just satisfactory--and they may be mentally or emotionally checked out. 

That means they're more inclined to take the next offer. And when they walk out the door, they'll take valuable knowledge, training, and all the money you've invested in them.

2. Difference is the differentiator.

Most people launch their business to address a problem or to fill a void. In the marketplace, you have to distinguish your products and services from your competition, and you can only do that through differentiation.

Further, if you want your message to meet the market, you must understand the landscape, lest you miss it altogether. That's why it's critically important to make sure your organization has multiple viewpoints from as many backgrounds as possible.

A variety of viewpoints ensures you don't develop marketing myopia. If your company doesn't understand the needs and wants of its customers, you face irrelevancy. Find the talent who can see around corners and give you more insights, so your product can be built to endure, not bust.

3. Encoding the culture. 

Everyone wants to be respected, acknowledged, involved, inspired, and engaged. Does your culture support that?

Find the right words and sentiments that clearly and sincerely convey your organization's  culture code to both staff and customers. Build a culture where folks get to be themselves, and you'll find they'll go the extra mile as it relates to productivity, ideas, and overall success.

If your colleagues feel connected to the culture, know they are valued, and are happy, they'll outperform and in the process take the business to the next level.

4. Don't fear feedback. 

Feedback is a gift. Make sure, when possible, that everyone has the opportunity to share their perspective. This is important for two reasons:

  1. Informed decisions occur when there is more data available.
  2. A culture of candor gets latent ideas out into the forefront.

You should be wary of extinguishing the flow of feedback. If feedback isn't part of the culture, leaders and employees are basically operating in the dark.

Take performance, for instance. If you can't honestly give your employees feedback, they can't grow. Avoiding conflict only puts off the inevitable and compounds the situation. 

5. Support, don't suppress. 

A culture where people know they are supported gives you the agency to make the big bets to take the company to the next level. The best idea should always win.

Does your organization create an environment where any idea, no matter where it came from, can percolate to the top? If not, you have a cultural time bomb waiting to go off. Innovation should never be stifled to where bad culture becomes an inhibitor of inventiveness.

As Jack Welch, former General Electric chairman and CEO, once said: "An organization's culture is not about words at all. It's about behavior--and consequences. It's about every single individual who manages people knowing that his or her key role is that of chief values officer."

Culture is a core business strategy that cannot be a secondary or tertiary effort--so start now and create a culture that endures.