G. Krista Morgan is cofounder and CEO of P2Binvestor, a Denver-based crowdlending platform for working capital financing founded in 2012. Since P2Binvestor went to market in January 2014, Krista led operations and strategic direction for the company and grew client contracts to more than $20 million and client funding to more than $68 million.

"How would you describe your company's culture?"

Of all the questions a venture capitalist could ask me, you would think I would have the least trouble with this one. After two days of tough conversations about unit economics, sales strategy and financial projections, this should have been a softball question.

But it wasn't.

I took a deep breath and admitted it was a tough question to answer. In retrospect, the answer I gave was probably not that bad, but I knew in my heart that I didn't do our culture justice. I didn't do our team justice. It was a #CEOfail kind of moment for me.

Culture is a common theme these days; every startup CEO talks about their amazing culture and how it drives them and inspires their team. Research shows that companies with a high-performance culture have a distinct competitive advantage in part because competitors cannot duplicate your culture like they can copy your technology. Investors are known to invest in the team and often, its underlying culture.

One of the key components of a winning team from a venture capital perspective is the clear articulation and proof of that amazing culture. So I find myself now wondering what it really is for our company. How do I define it? And more importantly: How on earth am I going to institutionalize it as we grow?

You Can't Create Culture, But You Can Guide Its Evolution

The VC who asked me the question rightly pointed out that it's easy to have a great culture when you have 20 people. But if you don't define it well at the beginning, you'll lose it as you scale as a company. I recognize that it can be much harder to unify our team around shared values as we move from 20 to 50 to 100 people in a short period of time. That said, I do not think it's as simple as writing down some key words and calling them "core values."

I have actively avoided giving our culture a name, maybe because I think we're still finding it. Maybe it's because I spent too much time in corporate life where culture had a name, but no soul. Perhaps I just haven't found a name worthy of the special culture we have created.

People often tell me that culture is a direct reflection of the founders, but I think it's more than that. It's a product of the hard times we went through before finding traction and the things we did to pull together and persevere. It's a function of our environment -- our small office space, the Denver startup community, and the unique characteristics of Colorado itself.

Our startup has never been rolling in cash. We don't have Ping-Pong tables, a foosball table or even a kegerator. We have 20 people who work in a crowded 1,777 square-foot space and (almost) never complain. The luxuries in our office consist of healthy snacks, good locally roasted coffee, a shared standing desk, craft beer on Friday afternoons, lots of jokes and goat videos, and exercise balls instead of chairs. We don't have rules per se, but in our relatively short journey as a company, we developed tenets that describe what we do as a team at P2Binvestor and how we hold ourselves and each other accountable.

So the question I ask myself is: If our culture is not created, but rather evolved out of the shared experiences of the people we chose to bring on board in these early days, then how can we maintain it? Will our gritty culture get trampled a little when things get comfortable?

I think the answer is yes. I think the new people who join us as time goes by can never fully understand what the original survivors -- as I like to call us -- went through to get our company to this better place. However, I've learned that evolving a startup's culture can be bolstered by these four things:

  1. Maintain a daily written record of your shared history. At our company, we have a daily morning newsletter authored by yours truly, although lately I've been encouraging team members to volunteer to write our morning news when they feel inspired to contribute to our shared narrative. This is possibly the best way to impart institutional and historical knowledge to new people as well as help current staff keep a finger on the pulse.
  2. Talk to your people often, openly and honestly. I accomplish this in staff meetings, in authoring our morning news, and in spending time with my team--a luxury right now given our small office and small staff. As we grow, point No. 1 becomes even more critical to maintaining open communication and codified cultural values.
  3. Hold true to a fanatical belief in equality. Never make new people feel any less valued than those of us who were here first. Remember that "you cannot be what you cannot see," and promote people who embody the kind of company culture you desire.
  4. Continue to allow culture to evolve. Do not hold on to the old ways just because they worked for you at a moment in time.

With all that said, I am still at a loss as to how we will define our culture to the world as it evolves. What I do know is that we will do our best to distill what makes us unique and great into something akin to the 4 H culture at SendGrid that is so famous in startup circles here in Colorado, the mission-driven, culture-first team at SalesLoft, the amazingly inspired Hubspot Culture Code, or what Greg Gottesman calls the Thirteen Key Characteristics of a Great Startup Culture.

Whether you've just started thinking about it, are trying to improve or change it, or have it figured out -- what is your culture?

Published on: Jun 19, 2015