By Todd Emaus, a founder turned startup coach

Time and again when talking with business founders, I hear a misunderstanding of what startup culture is and how it came to be. Couple that with a lack of belief that culture can be managed or even built upon, and it's no wonder we hear about so many toxic cultures in today's rapidly growing startup world.

However, by understanding, defining and building culture, we can (and will) create the healthy businesses of today and tomorrow.

What Culture Is (and Isn’t)

Company culture is defined as the values and beliefs that define what matters and how you behave as a whole. In a way, company culture encapsulates everything -- it’s the foundation on which you build. Yet so few leaders understand culture or choose to invest in it. At best, this is a missed opportunity. At worst, it may put a company’s sustainability in jeopardy.

The simplest way to see your culture in action is by noticing the behaviors of yourself and your team. Watch how communication happens -- what is said, how it’s shared and what isn’t said. The culture is the backdrop upon which all of your behaviors occur.

Worth noting, too, is that startup culture exists from the moment the company is born. It always has been and will continue to impact results. It’s your job as a leader to ensure that the impact is positive.

Why Company Culture Matters

At the highest level, company culture matters because people deserve to do meaningful work that they love. There also happens to be quite a strong business case for investing in culture. A healthy culture positively impacts your business in three key ways:

1. Attracting top talent: People want to join companies that know who they are, where they’re headed and how they’ll get there. Talent is hard to come by and culture helps.

2. Retaining talent: Healthy cultures keep employees engaged in their work, and engagement has been shown to reduce turnover by up to 65 percent.

3. Faster, better decision making: You’ll get the best out of your team when everyone is aligned on the behaviors and objectives that matter most. There’s less confusion and quicker decision making, which helps each person become more effective and efficient in their work.

Leaders who see the upside in creating a healthy culture can get started by first defining their culture. Left undefined, a team will waiver. Defining your culture not only makes what matters clear but also gives you a structure to build upon.

How to Define Your Startup’s Culture

There are two steps to take in defining your company culture. First, get clear on your core purpose. Why do you exist in the first place? What are you and your team here to accomplish/change/build?

With your “why” clear, move into defining the “how” -- your culture code or values. These are the essential pieces of how you behave in pursuit of purpose. Focus initially on finding themes that are true. After that, combine and edit themes to a smaller list (I suggest aiming for five to eight). Once narrowed down, do a final push to find the words, images and/or colors that best capture the essence of how and why you do what you do.

In case you need a dose of inspiration, check out the culture codes of big brands like HubSpot, Buffer or Netflix. Sometimes seeing others’ end product can help get things moving along, but be sure not to copy or you’ll miss your essence entirely.

Building Your Startup’s Culture

Once defined, you and your team’s job becomes to build out the culture. This is as simple as bringing your purpose and culture code to life in the processes and people of your organization. The earliest wins for building culture can be found in rethinking how you hire, onboard, meet, communicate and plan. There’s also much more beyond that to explore.

By empowering your team, you can cover more ground in building culture in your company. Being committed to building your startup culture not only creates a healthier place to work but also stacks the odds of success in your favor.

Todd Emaus is a founder turned startup coach. He helps leaders and their teams navigate the intensity to be their best.

Published on: Feb 14, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.