6 tips to retain a start-up culture in a growing business

Growth in a business is always welcome, but how can owners ensure they retain the culture that made them successful in the first place? Talent Party CEO Ben Hutt gives his views.

How do you maintain a start-up culture as your business grows? It’s a question that’s being asked a lot right now as more businesses than ever recognise the importance of staying nimble and agile.

But what is a ‘start-up’ culture?

I’ve worked in everything from small, nimble start-ups to progressive multi-nationals, and to me, a start-up culture is a mindset, an openness to grow, to try new things and never be constrained.

So how do you achieve this? How do you balance the demands of an expanding business with the desire to retain a great culture? Here are my six top tips.  

1. Be prepared to try things, fail fast and get back up

Failing is far too often considered bad. In the right context, and in an environment of safety and support, it’s quite the opposite. As businesses get larger and more people are involved, the appetite to take risks drops dramatically. As a leader, you must fight for your right to fail. More importantly, you must allow others to feel safe to try new things, some of which inevitably won’t work out.

By failure, I don’t mean have a catastrophe. Try small things, lots of them, appreciate that most of them will not be right. Stop doing those that fail, and continue doing those that work.  Then refine and repeat the process. This attitude is required to support agility and innovation. Big companies often struggle with this as decision making takes too long, they get too committed to a single path then find it hard to change direction. Don’t fall into this trap.

If you accept failure as an important part of growing your business, you and your team will feel safe testing the boundaries and being innovative, rather than responding to it.

2. Hire the very best people you can find, every time

This is a crucial step. Throughout my career, the defining factor of the most successful businesses I’ve seen has been great people in the business.

While it might seem hard at first to find fantastic employees, I view it as a mentality shift. Before you embark on any hiring drive it is important to stop and say to yourself “this is the most important decision I will make this year” because it will be. With this mentality, you will seek out all appropriate options and start to pick the best from a great bunch and not the least worst.

My main tip on this is to define what characteristics are most important to you as a leader in your team. For me, it is resilience and intellectual curiosity. A brilliant mix that creates great work. 

Don’t penny pinch in this area.  A top performer will be ten times more productive than an average player. They are worth the extra salary and incentives every time.

3. Focus people on things they are great at

I’m a big believer in having people focus on their strengths.  Improve weaknesses to a point where they are not risky, but invest in making people better at the things they are naturally great at and focus their delivery on those.  You’re never going to be the best at something you’re not naturally strong in.

People that spend most of their time on one aspect of the business they are great at will not only be far happier at work but deliver more regular and higher-quality results.

4. Set ambitious goals

To most people in business, the defining character of an innovative start-up is its ambitious goals, so why do we lose these as businesses grow?

As businesses expand there is some element of ‘growing up’ that has to occur but you must always think big. All great start-ups get to where they are because they aim high, take risks along the way and learn from their mistakes.

Like a flea jumping under a turned-over glass, who quickly learns never to jump as high as they can, organisations who put lids on their aspirations will stifle their people and never achieve their potential.

As your business grows, so should your goals. If you stop thinking big you risk resigning yourself to thinking small, and with that comes stagnation and loss of interest for your top performers.

5. Stay close to your teams

This is a lesson I’ve learnt very recently – as you grow into multiple sites across multiple cities and countries, the need to stay close to your teams becomes more and more important. It is the easy option to hire a head of office and expect it all to work. Unfortunately, it rarely does.

Always take the time to visit offices, learn what people are great at and ensure they are being used to the best of their ability. If you do this and focus on hiring the right people in the right places then you will go a long way to ensuring the culture remains strong.

Technology can quickly and cheaply solve the “tyranny of distance”, and whether I’m at home or out for a walk I can chat to key people across the world every day.  It’s important to build deep and long lasting relationships and alignment with the company goal and culture.

6. Implement process but do so cautiously

Process and innovation seem juxtaposed.  They can be, but if process (and systems) are implemented appropriately they can really support both innovation and empowerment.  Process should save people time, reduce risk, but not impact flexibility in solution delivery or iteration.  Think carefully and work out what you’re trying to achieve before doing anything.

Save your people time they spend on pointless tasks, and they’ll be happier, flourish and contribute more – getting you towards your ambitious goal more quickly and effectively.

The keys to retaining a start-up culture are commitment, time and breaking it down into small, achievable elements. While the retention of a great culture is not a financial metric you can report on to investors on or a product that you can sell to customers, it is one of the single most important parts of a growing business. Great culture breeds great work, so take the time to nurture it and fight for your right to grow the way you want to.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.

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Company culture