Intentional Culture in Startups

Intentional Culture in Startups

I met a founder at a party last week and we quickly got onto discussing company culture in small teams.

Though he was older than me, his company was significantly younger — Encore is nearly three years old! — so I found myself sharing a lot of advice, lessons learned and educational mistakes with him.

He was often asking me to repeat things so he could take notes on his phone, and towards the end of our conversation I noticed he had written a small essay’s worth of notes!

The following day, I started to think more deeply about how Encore’s culture has evolved over the last three years, and how we have gone from having an incidental culture to an intentional one.

Having a good culture is so much more than hosting drinks on a Friday and seeing surface-level happiness among your team. We’ve learned a lot over the last three years, and I hope I can provide you with some insight and several ideas to improve your own culture.

The different phases of early-stage startup culture

Reflecting on the last three years, I see three distinct phases in the evolution of our company’s culture.

Encore Founders

Founders

The first eight months of Encore involved only my co-founder, James, and myself. We saw each other every working day, and we spoke on Slack throughout the weekend.

“Culture” wasn’t something that ever crossed our minds. We got on well and approached a point where we could almost read each other’s minds.

We worked incessantly into the early hours, often cycling home from the “office” at midnight.

Actually, we had no office or space of our own, only access to a co-working space where we rotated around different desks every day.

We loved music, and we loved building Encore. That was our culture, and we never attempted to formalise it. Our culture was not intentional, but merely incidental.

2–4 people

Encore team four people

Within a year of founding Encore, we had raised investment, hired two full-time employees and moved into an office of our own.

After a year of working in a noisy open-plan co-working space, we moved into a small office of our own, and I’m so glad we did. At last, we could shut the door on the noise and distraction, and I believe cultivating culture and shared beliefs is much easier when you have a physical space that you can make your own.

As four people, we all spoke to each other on a daily basis and nearly always ate lunch as a full team.

Our culture was still very ad-hoc, and it wasn’t until we knew we were about to grow headcount again that we started to think more deeply about it. We wrote down our values and refined our mission statement ahead of the new team members joining us.

These were our first steps towards an intentional culture.

5+ people

Encore team, 5+ people

Since October 2016, we have always had a minimum of five people on the team. Headcount has fluctuated as people have joined, others have moved onto pastures anew, and interns have come and gone.

We hit nine people at the end of 2016, and being honest, we hit that number before our culture was ready for so many people (a common problem in fast-growing startups).

At this point, I realised in my role as CEO that I needed to take more deliberate steps towards a healthy and balanced culture, where everyone could make decisions without having to consult the founders and where every member of the team felt motivated and fulfilled.

I was no longer having long conversations with every member of the team on a daily basis, and it was rare that we could all get together for lunch on a regular basis.

At the point where the number of new employees (joined within the last 3 months) outweighed the number of employees who had been at Encore for over a year, I knew that I had to act fast to solidify and cultivate the culture we as a founding team wanted.

How do we cultivate our culture?

Below is a list of activities and processes we have rolled out over the last eight months. Though it may seem like a lot, we always cull anything that is a waste of time or ineffective, so the fact that these processes have survived shows that they bring value to the team.

One on one catchups

Our company is comprised of two teams. Product, led by our CTO James, and Growth, led by myself as CEO.

We meet with each member of our teams for a 30–60 minute conversation every two weeks, and we meet with members of the opposite team every four weeks.

This practice falls more into the realm of Management than Culture, but I think being disciplined with these catchups (ensuring they happen without fail) has meant our culture is one of openness and honesty.

Done well, these conversations will always uncover small issues or frustrations that team members may only feel comfortable discussing in private. These conversations are most useful when they are truthful, and over time they help to build up real trust between manager and employee.

If you don’t already do these, I would strongly encourage you to start. We certainly noticed a big difference after starting them.

Retro

Every Friday at 4.30pm, we gather as a team to collectively reflect on the week and look ahead to the next week. This is called Retro, short for Retrospective.

We start a five-minute timer and all write on four post-it notes each. These post-its are then gathered into four segments on a whiteboard:

  • Start
  • Stop
  • Continue
  • Delta

Encore Retro board Our most recent Retro board

The Start section contains projects or activities that team members want to start doing the following week. Stop is the opposite – problems that should be stopped, or bad habits to nip in the bud. Continue is for things that are going well, and Delta is one goal that each team member makes themselves accountable to in front of the entire team.

Before we introduced Friday Retro, the week would often fade out. Crucially, learnings from the previous five days weren’t always crystallised and the team didn’t do any collective thinking about the following week.

Retro is a fantastic way to wrap up your week, and to get your team talking about both recent problems and successes.

Standup

This may feel like an obvious one, but getting it right is tricky. Each morning, we do two individual standups as Growth and Product teams. In this meeting, we report to the team:

Standup Questions

The key to getting this right is in the duration of the meeting. Each person shouldn’t take longer than two minutes, and if conversations begin to break out, ask for them to be continued after standup.

Lunch and Learn / Show and Tell

I picked up Lunch & Learn from a previous company I worked at, Decoded. Once every couple of weeks, someone from the team (or sometimes an external guest) would present on a topic they were passionate about to anyone who wanted to listen at lunchtime.

I gave a short talk on my dissertation project, which was really enjoyable for me and seemed to be enjoyable for the rest of the team! I love the idea of Lunch & Learn for two reasons:

  • Learning new topics is enjoyable, and learning is one of Encore’s core values.
  • Seeing other members of the team talk about topics they’re passionate about is extremely enjoyable, and helps us all get to know one another.

*Show & Tell *is really similar to Lunch & Learn, but it’s more directly related to work. Show & Tell is a great chance for developers and designers to show off new features they’ve been working on, and for members of the Growth Team to share insights and analytics they’ve recently uncovered.

As your team gets bigger, it’s important that everyone is kept in the loop regarding product updates and key insights, and Show & Tell is a great way of doing that. I like it because the presentations come from the people doing the work, rather than founders presenting because they’re founders.

Learning Time

Following on from the topic of learning, another thing we like to do is dedicate an hour each week to personal development. This could involve reading a book, watching a lecture series, or completing an online course.

Believe it or not, this has been surprisingly difficult to establish! We’re all extremely busy and squeezing in just an hour can be tricky. As we get better at this, we’ll begin increasing the amount of time we spend on it.

Monday Team Lunch

As your team grows, having lunch together gets harder and harder to organise. Choosing one day of the week and sticking to it establishes a rhythm for everyone on the team, and means people are less likely to make their own plans on that day.

We chose Monday as it’s a great time for everyone to catch up after the weekend. Simple as that!

Officevibe

This is the only item in the list that costs money, but I think it’s worth it.

Quantifying culture is extremely difficult, but Officevibe provides good estimates and proxies.

Employees are surveyed on a weekly basis and invited to provide anonymous feedback to the founders. The questions cover the following metrics:

  • Personal Growth
  • Recognition
  • Relationship with Peers
  • Happiness
  • Satisfaction
  • Ambassadorship
  • Feedback
  • Relationship with Manager
  • Wellness
  • Alignment

Officevibe is by no means a substitute for regular and honest conversation with your team, but it’s helpful for uncovering issues and spotting trends before they become problematic.

Get a free month of Officevibe by using my promo code:
https://www.officevibe.com/invite/t/james-mcaulay96

Culture checks during hiring

Part of our hiring process that both candidates and our team really enjoy is a series of short quickfire conversations between the candidate and several members of the team.

These conversations tend to last 10–15 minutes, and afterwards we ask each team member to answer the following questions:

  1. What did you like about them? Did anything in particular excite you?
  2. Was there anything you disliked? Any ‘red flags’?
  3. Can you imagine them getting along well with the Encore team, and do you think you’d enjoy working with them?

Ten minutes may seem like a short amount of time, but it’s usually enough for our team to write detailed answers to those questions.

Your culture will suffer if you hire someone your team don’t enjoy working with, so pay close attention to the reactions of your team. Be careful to assess for “Culture Add” rather than “Culture Fit”, which tends to produce homogenous and non-diverse teams. Brad Feld has written a great post on this.

Candidates are always impressed by the calibre of our team, so the added bonus of this process is that your company becomes more alluring to prospective hires.

Onboarding

The first few days of a team member’s employment at a new company make a lasting impression, and so we’ve spent a long time thinking about how to make them as smooth and as welcoming as possible.

We go out for drinks after the employee’s first day to celebrate them joining us, which is a nice way to socialise and relax after a day they may have found quite overwhelming.

We provide a checklist of software to install and setup, as well as overviews of our mission and values.

We also ask every member of the team to schedule an informal tea/coffee with the new recruit to get to know them in a one-on-one setting. This means that, within a week or so, the new member has had a personal conversation with every member of the team, and should hopefully know everyone’s names!


Culture isn’t something that just happens. As your team grows, the effort required to maintain a healthy and balanced team also increases, and it’s important to take deliberate steps towards the type of culture that you want for your company.

Culture may not seem important in the early days, but it becomes extremely important if it’s neglected and starts to go awry.

Seeing your team enjoying their work and enjoying coming to work each day is extremely rewarding as a founder. By taking good care of your team and taking intentional steps towards the culture you want, you will create a workplace everyone can thrive in, yourself included.

I hope you’ve found this useful and that you might put some of these ideas into practice. If your team have any routines or processes that you think we might benefit from, I’d love to hear from you! You can email me on jm [at] encoremusicians.com

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