Retaining the Start-Up Vibe


Culture is the nucleus of every organisation. It is what binds people together as a collective of individuals and makes them strive for common team goals. It can change and, if left unmanaged, it can destroy.

Start-up companies create unique cultures. There is no question about it. These cultures tend to be creative, dynamic and all-inclusive. At times, they can be hugely competitive – which, in such fast-paced companies, makes each individual, from C-level management to interns, strive to do better. In most cases, a great company culture is what makes a start-up ultimately succeed.

I have found the fast-paced start-up an extremely rewarding place to work, where challenges and hurdles are tackled head on with tenacity. This core “can do” mentality builds a strong foundation for long-term success and business growth. However, it is this cultural bedrock that is most at risk when a business enters the mid-size phase of its life.

With success and growth comes the need for more employees, more space and additional resources, which begs the question…how do we continue to grow while keeping that invaluable start-up vibe strong? 

My advice to business leaders navigating this post-start-up growth period is to follow these twelve simple rules:

Keep structures flat and avoid unnecessary hierarchies. This helps reduce internal politics and removes barriers. Management should be approachable and easily accessible even as the company gets bigger.

Foster transparent communication throughout the business – teams that know what the bigger picture is will always work better toward realising it. Not only is this motivating, it also allows everyone to feel like they are on the same page, and therefore more invested in the product they’re building or brand they’re representing. Keep the philosophy that every record you break will soon be broken again.

Never impose a corporate dress code. Why limit what people wear? Give staff the freedom to express their individuality and they will be far happier at work. When given the freedom to do so, most people will dress appropriately and establish acceptable parameters themselves. In my experience sponsoring or giving away company-branded t-shirts and sweatshirts helps get teams more attached to the brands and products they’re working with. In addition, employees can show how proud they are of where they work!

Recruit with diversity front of mind to build an international team. People from different cultures and backgrounds bring a wider mix of skills and experiences. If and when cultures do clash, co-workers will find productive working solutions themselves.

Hire people based on their potential and develop them within their roles. This creates a greater sense of pride, accountability and ownership, resulting in a more efficient and effective team. Don’t hire people just because they have experience at larger companies. Early on in our company’s history, our founders started the concept of “talent over experience”, smart and hungry people will learn fast and become the best at anything you put them to work on; this remains true at all sizes.

Resist growing the administrative headcount. Everyone in the business can do his or her own admin tasks and diary management. Nobody is too busy to be organised or read his or her own emails.

Grow and mature in stages. Add structure as an “evolution,” rather than an imposed “revolution”. A more mature, professional company doesn’t mean slower and more bureaucratic processes. Don’t suddenly bring people from larger corporations in to impose corporate policies. Try to find people who know what a more structured future looks like, but at the same time who fit well with the organisation’s current culture and can help it mature from within. Imposing rules from the top will only result in resistance, fights and standstill. Give the company time to mature in its own way. That being said, there will always be “legacy” people, who will never want to adapt and change; these people will eventually move on, as there is no place in a growing organisation for people who cannot mature as the company does.

Host frequent social events to give employees the chance to bond away from their desks and off email, with people outside of their immediate teams. This creates a more even playing field and allows relationships to be established in neutral out of office territories. In our case, themed fancy press parties where everyone in the office dresses up is a key element of our company culture and keeps the company creative and fun.

Allow the freedom to fail – by testing out new ideas and failing, we learn perhaps more than when we succeed. These learnings can be positively applied to achieve future successes. It’s important to encourage and embrace change in every aspect of the business and allow a culture of ‘no-fear’ to develop – led by the emergence of lots of fresh new ideas. My two favourite quotes are: “It’s hard to fail but it’s worse never to have tried to succeed” by Theodore Roosevelt and “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” from FDR.

Provide a framework for flexible working hours and patterns. Everyone has an optimum time of day when their productivity is highest. Tap into this and allow people to flourish. Minimise the number of recurrent meetings – meet only when you need to, not because a month has passed since the last meeting took place. Measure and judge by results instead of by hours in the office and reward people accordingly.

Have open plan offices – seat everyone in the same open space, including the CEO. The design of an office has a huge impact on company culture. Avoid being lured to fancy offices – keep the space real, with tangible things that everyone can enjoy, such as arcade games, table tennis and open café spaces. These all help to make a working environment more inclusive and sociable. I sit in an open space with all other employees and that really helps.

Keep the number of employees low (below 250 people) even when company growth is high, if possible. Smaller teams mean everyone can still get to know each other, communication is fluent, people work together collaboratively, there is less politics and bureaucratic processes and there are fewer meetings. This allows the company to launch new products, services and offerings faster in new markets, which helps maintain growth momentum. One of the biggest mistakes start-up companies make is to grow teams too big and too quickly, which eventually kills the growth and culture that made the company great in the first place. Nobody can find and recruit truly great people that fast; it takes time to find the right talent. If a business recruits too many poorly-qualified people in a short period of time, it can kill the company.

A strong company culture is highly valuable. No matter how big a company grows, culture should always be at the heart of it, adapting to new opportunities and challenges along the way, but remaining true to what made that company great in the first place. In my experience, the best thing to do is embrace change but at the right pace, be proud of who you are (or aren’t) and find your own way to maturity. Foster open communication and creativity at all levels and make sure everyone knows that the best is yet to come!

Jeronimo Folgueira, CEO of EliteSingles