Leaders of early-stage companies don't lavish a lot of time on culture. Their attention is turned outward, toward the customers, lenders, and investors who will breathe financial life into their ideas. Employees—there are but a handful—are presumably content. Hey, they're still there, aren't they? They're getting paid. Anyway, isn't the excitement of a young company a kind of culture in itself? Life on the precipice. Adrenaline in the water coolers.

And so, leaders put off the heavy work of erecting the scaffolding of values, policies, shared beliefs, rewards, rituals, and visual elements that constitute culture. In that void, culture happens spontaneously: an aggregation of particular decisions made by particular people in particular circumstances. If those people are good and decent (and competent), chances are, the culture will be good and decent as well. Nature and nurture combine to form an understanding of how we do things that grows more solid and coherent with time.

But some entrepreneurs possess clear visions of their ideal cultures from the beginning. Every decision they make—whom to hire, what benefits to provide, where the CEO should sit—is in pursuit of those ideals. In fact, the opportunity to derive an entire social order from the leader's character and experience can be an incentive for starting a company in the first place. So is the urge to do things differently from those unenlightened bosses who made the entrepreneur's life hell back when he was working for the Man. Ask a founder why he designed his company a certain way, and he's as likely to tell you what he was reacting against as what he was striving for.

This thoughtful approach to culture characterizes the 2011 Top Small Company Workplaces. The 50 honorees were selected by the not-for-profit organization Winning Workplaces, which recognizes businesses that cultivate productive, satisfied employees. (See "Choosing the Top Small Company Workplaces," below.) The leaders of these companies don't view jobs as prizes doled out to lucky applicants. Rather, they figure the people they have chosen have chosen them as well, and, naturally, they want to make the place nice for them. So they treat workers fairly, often generously; respect their personal lives; provide opportunities for development; and endow their jobs with meaning and fun. In return, those employees bestow their best ideas and efforts on the business. They pull together through change and hard times.

But the Top Small Company Workplaces aren't just "nice" in a generic way. The leaders of these companies don't try to be all things to all people. Rather, they want to create the best possible workplaces for the kinds of people who can help them succeed.

That approach is de rigueur in Silicon Valley, where Google's co-founders famously appealed to smart young techies happy to log insane hours on cool projects with smart colleagues. The leaders of Box.net have followed suit. Engineers at this cloud-software developer and Top Small Company Workplaces honoree have weekly deadlines. Long hours are the subtext of perks such as free dinners and facilities in which to shower and sleep. Yet Winning Workplaces found that Box.net has an employee approval rating of 97 percent. Employees choose to hang together after work at company-sponsored events and eagerly anticipate the semiannual Hackathon, at which they take ideas from early stage to implementation in a single night. And the leadership promulgates an all-in-it-together message with the policy that managers don't leave before their reports, especially if those reports are deployed on time-sensitive projects.

Box.net isn't heaven on a stick for everyone. Which is to say, if this isn't for you, surely you know it. But co-founders Aaron Levie and Dylan Smith have crafted a bespoke culture for competitive, hard-driving, can't-rest-until-I've-noodled-out-an-answer software engineers—the kind of talent needed to sustain the 1,000 percent revenue growth of the past four years.

Other honorees have exercised the entrepreneur's prerogative to create companies that are undistilled expressions of their own philosophies. These idiosyncratic cultures often maintain an intense focus on a single value. And when we say intense, we mean intense.

Like Box.net, such founder-imprinted companies are not for everyone. But for those who share the leaders' priorities and obsessions, such companies are Nirvana.

The following pages profile leaders who have shaped and refined their cultures with the same precision they apply to products and marketing. This is culture building as innovation, extending beyond best practices to new practices or practices taken to extremes. We hope they will inspire you to consider what is possible in your company. You want your brand to be unlike any other. Why not your culture as well?

Choosing the Top Small Company Workplaces
The Top Small Company Workplaces competition is sponsored by Winning Workplaces, a not-for-profit organization based in Evanston, Illinois. Qualifying companies must be based in North America and privately held, and must have been in operation at least three years at the end of 2010. They can have no more than 500 full-time employees. Not-for-profit organizations are eligible. This year, roughly 350 companies applied, and Winning Workplaces's staff and a panel of independent judges whittled that down to 50 winners. Applicants were judged on employee engagement and development, management effectiveness, rewards and recognition, mission, and benefits. In addition, Winning Workplaces conducted anonymous employee-satisfaction surveys at all finalist companies.

Elaine Brodsky, co-founder and co-owner, CitiStorage
Mary Corbitt Clark, assistant dean, University of Illinois at Chicago
Ken Lehman, founder and chairman, Winning Workplaces
Bill Main, president, Landscape Forms (past winner)
Richard Panico, CEO, Integrated Project Management (past winner)
Robert Pasin, CEO, Radio Flyer (past winner)
Paul Spiegelman, founder and CEO, the Beryl Companies
Tom Walter, CEO, Tasty Catering (past winner)
Therese F. Yaeger, associate professor, Benedictine University