Startup Lesson 28: 4 Reasons Startup Culture is Temporary

I’ve worked for about a dozen companies since I started working at age 12.  “Company culture” as something that can and should be intentionally created and maintained is not something that was part of my vocabulary until just recently.  My mindset has always been “get it done, and have fun while you’re doing it.”  That’s a half-decent starting point, but it’s not nearly enough to establish and cultivate an infectious and desirable company culture.  The leader or leaders of any startup have to be on the same page about creating the culture and be intentional on a daily basis about how they go about cultivating that culture.

This is true: if you don’t define and create your culture, the marketplace will do it for you.

You probably already know, or have at least heard, all this.  In my years in the startup world, I have unfortunately seen all too often the culture which was great for a while change dramatically right after a major event in the growth of the company. Here are four common examples.

  • IPO – I saw this occur first hand back in the day.  The culture at ADAM was so much fun, and then we went public, and then it was so not fun, mainly because of the hyper focus on quarterly earnings.  Everybody understood this going into the IPO; however, living it was very different. When we missed quarterly numbers, heads rolled.  That’s not fun.
  • Acquisition – When the second startup I joined was acquired, we were largely left alone by the parent company (1stData/Western Union) other than the amazing opportunities to grow the business through the connections of the larger acquiring company.  However, about a year after the acquisition, the founder left and the parent company brought in a new GM.  Immediately, the culture changed, for the worse. That new leader lasted less than 3 months, and then we got another new leader.  That once exciting, get it done, all hands on deck, do whatever it takes culture was gone.
  • Leadership conflict – This is the worst one.  It starts at the very beginning, and may not quite show itself until the chips are down or things get tough or the company grows, all of which will happen. What do you think the effect on the rest of the company is when the leaders disagree, can’t get along, become rivals, or worse? Maybe you’ve been in that situation before. It sucks.  Be very, very careful about your co-founder(s) and early leaders.
  • New leadership – I’ve already touched on this above, but sometimes it happens not because of an IPO or acquisition. Life happens, and people move on all the time. Get used to it.  That said, the company culture – or lack thereof – almost always starts at the top. When a leader changes, the culture will change. It’s inevitable.

Culture change is one of the very many reasons that the romantic vision of a startup is a myth and a dream. Some of us love it, thrive on it, and just can’t imagine doing anything else, because of all the constant change. Others think it’ll always be coffee, beer, scooters, and all nighters. It won’t.  As a startup becomes a business and grows, its culture will change, usually for one of the above reasons.

What do you think about that?