We live in the age of the unicorn; startups that seem to leap to billion dollar valuations overnight. It's a wonderful time to be an entrepreneur. The upside has never been greater. But let's face it, the reason they're called unicorns is because they are exceptionally rare.
While I regularly work with well-funded startups that have the possibility of joining the ranks of unicorns, I've also seen the other side of this phenomenon; founders and companies that become obsessed with their valuation and set their sights, and those of their employees, on incredibly unrealistic growth expectations. That's great if you experience fast, unabated, exponential growth. But if you slow down, plateau, or lose ground you also lose the enthusiasm of your people, and soon thereafter your people.
My advice to entrepreneurs I work with is always the same; "Be clear as to what your personal objective for the business is and build a culture that will support it no matter what its size."
As counter-intuitive as it may seem, my experience with hundreds of my own employees, and those of countless other organizations I've advised, is that what most defines the ability of an organization to inspire, retain, and develop its people is how sincerely and passionately it commits itself to a clearly articulated mission and vision. In fact, the smaller the organization the more important that is. That's because a smaller organization does not have much else with which to attract talent when compared to larger organizations with greater resources.
We are all drawn to be part of organizations, friendships, and communities which make us feel that we are part of something greater than ourselves. All too often, however, founders, believe they need to wait until their company is large enough to convey that sort of feeling. That's a big mistake.
The culture of your organization begins on day one. Whatever your ambitions, goals, exit strategies, or lifestyle strategies, it is critical that you imbue purpose and greatness into what you do and why you do it from the outset. That will allow you to attract, retain and develop your best people for the longest amount of time. In running my longest standing business-;an Inc 500 company-; for nearly 20 years, we didn't lose a single key individual. And that was during the feeding frenzy of the dot-com era, when people were constantly jumping from company to company. Years later when I talked to these same people they all told me that what kept them was the culture, passion, and sense of purpose of the organization.
Which brings me to what I believe is the most important quote for every entrepreneur to take to heart as they build their business.
"If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way."
I've seen this attributed to many people, from Mother Theresa to Tony Robbins. The quote is actually correctly attributed to author Napoleon Hill. By the way, if you haven't read his book Think and Grow Rich, do so now; Its' one of the 10 best selling self-help books of all time.
The reason I'm so drawn to this quote is that it speaks to what I believe is the bedrock of an organization's culture; the greatness of passion and purpose behind its mission. In my experience, the better you do this the more likely you are to attract, retain, and develop your people.
But don't just make a poster out of this. Advertise it to your people relentlessly. Use it in the vernacular of meetings, memos, email, and hallway conversations. Invest in activities that acknowledge the importance of purpose and vision. And reward people who passionately support the organization's culture.
No matter what the size of your company, now or in the future, by doing this you are setting the stage for a company that has greatness as part of its purpose and value throughout its lifecycle.
Not every company can have a billion dollar valuation, but any company can be a unicorn when it comes to building a culture of purpose and passion.