It’s been three years and three companies since I worked with my favorite startup of all time, and while I’m absolutely loving my current company and role, I’ve been reflecting on some of the things that really marked Startup #3 as such a brilliant, wonderful example of what a company culture should be.
My third startup was a SAAS company (software as a service, for the normal people out there) focused on cybersecurity. I found them after feeling pushed out of Startup #2, when one of the founders repeatedly exposed his belly to me and reminded me that his mom wanted him to “settle down with a nice Jewish girl,” and was I on Jdate? Needless to say, the bar wasn’t exactly set high for company culture. But this third startup knocked it out of the park. They didn’t rely on sparkly perks or promises of a big payout at the end of the rainbow. It was a company built by smart, decent people. They worked hard. They were creative. And they made something remarkable.
So how’d they do it?
1. They valued every team member’s time.
During the interview process, I had one-on-one time with the CEO, COO, CSO, and the CTO. They asked intelligent questions, gave me their undivided attention, and genuinely cared to make the right decision on the role I’d eventually fill. There were no mind games, no egos, no pretense. It was strictly, this is what we’re building. This is what we need. This is what we’re hoping we can do together. And they listened intently for whether I was the right fit.
They clearly cared about every hire, and their time was not more valuable than mine, or anyone else’s. They saw this as meaningful use of their time, finding the right long-term fit rather than just another thing blocking their calendars. They brought that attention and interest into every meeting, every one-on-one, and every new hire I’d eventually bring them.
2. They sponsored continued learning.
On day one, the CEO gave me a wonderful gift – something he’d given each employee that joined the team: a Kindle Paperwhite and an email address through which I could request as many ebooks as I wanted. He’d preloaded each Kindle with the books he’d found most valuable – including The Advantage and the full Lord of the Rings trilogy!
Everyone was able to request the books that were meaningful to their continued growth, completely free of judgment. We started a small lunchtime book club to share the best of them and had a Slack channel dedicated to book recommendations.
3. They fostered a culture of gratitude.
I’ve mentioned before a few of the beautiful things this startup gave me, including my habit of noting the things for which I’m grateful. It was at this company that we would spend 20 minutes every Friday morning sitting in a comfortable conference room, going in a circle and sharing what they’ve been most grateful for that week – both in and out of the office. I continue that practice to this day, even if it’s not always in a group setting.
4. They believed in an integrated lifestyle.
Work-life balance isn’t a thing most startups have heard of, and startup martyrdom is a real issue. But this company circumvented that entirely. The CEO of this company told me something I’ve taken with me everywhere since: the only way to stay sane in a startup is to embrace an integrated lifestyle.
This means that, in the same hour, whether at work or at home, he was doing whatever needed to be done. Tending to his kids. Reviewing reports. Prepping investor decks. Booking a vacation or eating his lunch. It didn’t matter whether he was in the office or at home. He was unashamed of spending working hours taking care of his personal life, because his personal hours were still going towards work.
They embraced this culture for everyone, and trusted that the team was responsible for their own use of time. It was refreshing, and it meant we could work hard without falling prey to burnout. It also opened the team up to learning more about each other as people, instead of just as coworkers. It may sound counterproductive, but it meant we were all in when we needed to be — because nothing else had to fall apart.
5. They offered transparency.
Every two weeks we went upstairs and had an all-hands meeting to go over anything and everything that mattered to our business. If a deal fell through, we talked about why. If software was buggy, we figured it out. But failure wasn’t a secret. If anything, it was a shared problem, and the team was trusted to find the solution.
6. They fostered a culture of vocal appreciation.
Every all-hands meeting concluded the same way. After talking through our company’s highs, lows, and general updates, we got personal. Every time someone in the office did something that felt above-and-beyond, we were encouraged to nominate them for a nod. The best of them were offered public kudos and congrats. It’s a small gesture, but it goes a long way in making people feel their efforts are noticed.
Honestly, my current company absolutely feels like it’s coming close! Hopefully years from now I’ll be reflecting on Corporate Office #3, and how wonderful it was. Hopefully, you’ll be doing the same!
Tis is a 20-something recruiter, startup enthusiast, finance blogger, and proud feminist-slash-crazy cat lady. Find her on Twitter or check out the blog for lifehacks and musings on personal finance, professional growth, and enjoying the journey to early retirement.
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