Fostering a Startup Culture: Part 1

If your core values are nothing more than words on a wall, then you can go about your day and do whatever you want. There’s nothing special about words. But, an actual culture has the ability to change your company and the lives of your employees.

I don’t mean the kind of faux company culture that involves Nerf guns, ping-pong tables or beer o’clock Fridays either. Culture isn’t an event. It’s not a product either. Culture is what happens when you know why you’re waking up, tell everyone about it and follow through on it.

Every company has a culture. The question is not whether you have one; it is whether you have the right one. At Brandcave, we value the innovative spirit, collaborative nature and creative thinking that comes from a startup culture. That’s why we’ve decided to foster and nurture those values.

In part 1 of this series, I’d like to demonstrate three ways Brandcave is forming a startup culture while we still are, in fact, a startup.

Keep Teams Small.

As an agency, we’re choosing to keep our teams small. Why? Because, there is a natural tendency to collaborate less when a team increases its numbers.

Small teams make communication easier and leave no room for dead weight. Today, so much more is being demanded of human capital and it’s not enough to have a team of specialists who silo in one core area. In our eyes, every member on our team needs to be as multi-skilled as an MLB infielder.

Besides, hiring a team of experts may not actually be all that beneficial. Research from Harvard Business Review showed that, “the higher the educational level of the team member, the more challenging collaboration appears to be for them. We found that the greater the proportion of experts a team had, the more likely it was to disintegrate into nonproductive conflict or stalemate.”

At the risk of losing valuable talent, we’re also choosing to keep our members local. As teams become more virtual, cooperation often decreases. Compensating for time zones, overcoming technological mediums, and creating a collaborative environment is more difficult when a team cannot work together physically.

Lastly, collaboration is a top-down initiative. At the most basic level, a team’s level of collaboration reflects the philosophy of top executives. When executives invest in supporting social relationships and demonstrate collaborative behavior themselves, they create what is known as a “gift culture.” Gift cultures are introduced when executives embed mentoring and coaching in their own routine behavior. Their investment in the members of their company is seen as valuable or a gift. In my own experience, there has been nothing I’ve valued more than the time previous employers invested in me.

Encourage Side Projects.

In high school and college, I was often teased by my family and adult friends about my obsession with hip-hop. In their mind, a career in rap was a pipe dream (I agree) and I needed to focus on learning actual trades. I listened and got real jobs, but I never stopped making music and producing projects on the side.

I didn’t realize it then, but my commitment to becoming a successful rapper inadvertently gave me all the tools I needed to become a decent creative manager. I didn’t have the money to get a music video, so I learned how to shoot one. I couldn’t afford studio time, so I recorded myself. I needed graphic design, so I bootlegged photoshop. I needed publicity, so I wrote press releases. You get the picture.

Although I’ve never made enough money to rap full-time, I was hired out of college because of these skills – not because of my college degree. That’s why side projects are so important. They make us better at everything. The skills we learn from them extend out and into everything else.

We are robbing ourselves when we do not encourage our employees to have side projects.

In recent years, technology companies and startups have learned the value of side projects. This has resulted in trends such as Hackathons, where employees work together for days or weeks to create a totally new project out of passion and creative expression. In the end, side projects help create collaborative environments because they reinvigorate our employees and encourage them to take ownership of their work. They create shared experiences. And, not only does it raise office morale, but it sharpens their skill sets.

However, most companies still underestimate how important it is to give employees the time and space to explore the things they are interested in. In our corporate culture where everything is data-driven and measured, side projects are hard to understand. But, if it becomes possible to ditch our obsession with growth, scalability, and financing, side projects allow employees to experiment and become better at their real jobs. It can even save companies.

After all, side projects can be credited for some of our favorite applications. Gmail, Craigslist, and even Post-Its can all thank their creators for working out their own ideas on the side.

Keep the Desk Messy.

When I begin the work day, everything is usually in its place. All papers are aligned, not one is askew. I turn on my laptop and immediately open my web browser. All is calm and right with the world. But, 20 minutes and 100 emails later, plans have changed. And, at this point, I have at least 20 tabs open in my browser and every perfectly aligned sheet has now been sprawled across the table.

I can’t help it. I’ve got a problem. At least, that’s what I’ve been taught to believe.

But, when the Carlson School of Management published a study showing that a messy environment is conducive to creativity, my opinion began to change.

What did the study show? A few things worth noting. First, an organized environment contributed to participants following conventional norms. This means they followed the rules and did the right thing, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But, conversely, an unorganized room actually helped participants break from conventional thinking. It encouraged them to think outside-the-box. Ultimately, their ideas were more creative.

Thinking outside-the-box is essential to a startup culture. That is why we’re choosing to abandon the notion that everything has a place and embrace the idea that inspiration should come from any place.

At minimum, this study should show us that our environment affects our behavior. But, it should really show us that we can tailor our employee’s behavior and encourage the attitudes we want to encounter by the kind of environment we create.

For example, if a bank wants it’s loan officers to follow the rules, we can encourage those behaviors by tidy office spaces. Conversely, a creative agency such as Brandcave needs to have more free thinking, and an unorganized room can help facilitate that.

Perhaps, Albert Einstein said it best. He was famously quoted as having said, “if a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what then, is an empty desk a sign?” Maybe it’s an organized one. But, if my messy desks helps put me in the ranks of other messy desk owners such as Steve Jobs, Roald Dahl, Mark Twain, Tony Hsieh and Mark Zuckerberg, I guess I’ll take it.

Your employees are making thousands of decisions every day. If your company has fostered the right kind of culture, you’ll know they’re making the right decisions. Stay tuned. Next time, we’ll share three more super important ways to foster a startup culture. Be sure to subscribe to keep updated.