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Startup culture fit and why it matters – a must-read for founders

Dec 28, 2021
11 min read

Startup mindset fit is key whether you’re hiring your early team employees or growing your startup. You need to ensure you’re hiring people who are proactive and open to adjusting to changes. It is really important to a startup that the candidate’s values and interests are in line with the company’s business culture. Check out everything you need to know about culture fit and its value in the business world.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast” – Peter Drucker 

What is organizational culture?

What determines culture in an organization? A clear mission and values. Matching culture to an organization’s identity involves continuous reinforcement of these values and behaviors on every level. In the long run, this is likely the most effective way of determining your organizational culture. Ultimately it is all about people: who you hire, what values your team(s) share, who you fire, and the social norms and company goals, mission.

In Silicon Valley, scores of successful companies have very different organizational cultures. But they all share a focus on values and ‘fitting them’. Here are some examples. 

  • Google has a collegial “Googly” culture where employees have a lot of leeway to make their own decisions based upon the information available. 
  • Apple and Tesla, on the other hand, keep employees on a ‘short leash’ and are much more top-down driven cultures, which makes sense given these are both hardware and software companies. 
  • In another instance, Uber’s first angel pitch deck apparently had the following slogan: “drivers get paid, riders get laid,” which makes sense in terms of the culture that later manifested itself later on (with some issues though) when the company blitzscaled globally. 

What’s common to all these companies above? The founders’ DNA determined all of these cultures. And what is the founders’ DNA? Their personality, values and working styles. What you believe in and what you care about the most will impact your organization – and it stems from the founders and executives running your company. 

Stanford GSB’s prof. Huggy Rao and John Lilly explain how organizational culture is crucial to success, as it determines how decisions are made all the way from executives down to ground-level employees, and how “with a little awareness and preparation, you can strategically create a company culture that aligns your founders’ beliefs with a winning business strategy.” For instance, for organizations that care about true team diversity, it’s not top-down diversity programs nor virtue signaling that matter, but actual diversity of thought, personality and working styles that is important to teams and their organization. 

Startup vs corporate cultures

There’s another dichotomy to look at, namely, at a generic level, between startup vs corporate cultures. Both organization types require different things from their employees, which can be tied to culture fit. Start-ups tend to value team members that are creative, curious and independent, comfortable wearing many hats and navigating a rapidly changing working week. Larger corporations, on the other hand, tend to have well established roles and structures. For this reason, they tend to value employees that can work to tight deadlines, follow guidelines and observe rigid protocols. 

Individuals that love self-direction and creative freedom can thrive in a start-up environment, but stagnate in a corporate one – ultimately affecting the business through their decreased drive or enthusiasm. On the other hand, individuals that enjoy stability and clear guidance or rules may flounder in a start-up environment. 

Does team culture fit matter? 

Culture fit matters as it helps align and motivate people, smoothens relations, eases the hard work and makes the work and interaction more pleasurable. Regardless of your skillset, where you are (including the culture, product, market and environment) can make all the difference to your motivation and performance. 

I really like this definition of firm culture by Sequoia Capital’s Alfred Lin, who helped grow Zappos and that company’s amazing culture: “A company’s culture are the everyday assumptions, beliefs, values, and behaviors, norms and actions of employees in pursuit of a company’s goals or mission.”

What’s unfortunate is that culture is probably the most undervalued asset of a startup by potential investors – especially those coming out of finance. The same is true of employees – especially those who have never experienced work at a company where the founders or their managers cared about team culture. A team with a great culture can handle anything – any problem can be solved, any obstacle overcome. Peter Thiel famously told AirBnB’s founders – as the single most important piece of advice – basically ‘Don’t fuck up the culture’. You can read about it in Brian Chesky’s blog post.

In Sam Altman’s “How to Start a Startup class”, Alfred Lin from Sequoia says that culture fit matters in startups because it “becomes a way to align people on values that matter to the company. It provides a certain level of stability to fall back on. And it provides a level of trust, people sort of trust each other with, but it also gives us a list with which you should be able to figure out what to do and what not to do. And the more important thing about that is what not to do. Then finally the other thing that is important is it allows you to retain the right employees. There are people in this world that are not going to be a fit for your company, but if you have a good strong culture, and strong core values, you’ll know who you want to retain and who you truly do not want to retain. And if you take the first letter of those it happens to help you move faster.

He adds that “one of the things I think a lot of companies don’t actually do is, they interview for technical fit or skill fit, a competency in that realm, but they don’t actually interview for the culture fit, whether someone will actually believe in and follow the mission. I think that is a big, big no no. I think you can have the smartest engineer in the world but if they don’t believe the mission they are not going to pour their heart and soul into it. And that’s one of the things where if you actually start thinking about culture, from the interview process, to performance reviews, to making sure that’s a daily habit, you get a lot further with making a great culture.” 

Also, he says that contemporary companies often check out the technical level of candidates’ skills and sometimes also soft skills, but a lot of interviewers don’t really verify the cultural fit. Brian Chesky , AirBnB CEO notes that: “Why is culture so important to a business? Here is a simple way to frame it. The stronger the culture, the less corporate process a company needs. When the culture is strong, you can trust everyone to do the right thing.” At AirBnB Chesky prioritizes creativity, learning, and play, as well as building teams that are “intimidatingly talented”. 

What are we up to at Gyfted?

At Gyfted we’re out to help people get hired to jobs and teams that fit them. Our vision is to change how recruiting and labor markets work by enabling this vision:  

“Apply once to 1,000,000 companies to get matched where you truly fit.”

Given our focus on team culture we’re devising tools that help provide measures and signals of it specifically to make hiring better both for candidates and team managers alike. This is core to our product, core to helping founders and team managers hire for culture fit and discover hidden talent, and core to helping candidates find organizations where they’ll thrive. Check out our talent assessment tools if anything you read above clicked with you. 

To get many nuanced and typological views of what organizational culture is, check out these articles: 

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