3 minute read

The six essential ingredients of a successful startup culture

Culture is more important than funding, products of marketing when it comes to startup businesses, says author and global people and culture leader Alex Nicolaus. In his book Startup Culture he shares six vital elements of culture that enable startups to gain competitive advantage

Startup Culture

Culture is pivotal to attracting talent, customers and investors. And with 90% of startups failing, a unique culture is increasingly key to growth. But, says global people and culture leader Alex Nicolaus, founders often leave culture to evolve on its own – and that is a mistake.

As well as leading people strategy for corporations such as Jaguar Land Rover and Barclays Wealth, Nicolaus has more recently led culture strategy at some of Asia’s fastest growing startups, including Paysend and Circles.Life.  His experience, he says, has taught him that, as well as adopting the right growth model for startup businesses, there are six essential ingredients in any startup culture:

1.  A sense of purpose

According to Nicolaus the new generation of employees and workers looks for purpose or meaning in its work rather than being motivated by pay. This means that having a clear purpose will help you to recruit vision aligned and committed talent. It also matters to investors, he says. When pitching, you should articulate the positive change you believe you can create in society as well as emphasising the opportunity your vision gives you to deliver greater financial returns. When aligned with customer goals a company’s purpose can lead to higher levels of customer satisfaction. Designing your purpose around benefiting your customers is linked to building a resilient product. Purpose also gives you a way of planning for the impact you plan to have on the world, so that when things aren't going well it's something you can use to help you and your team overcome the inevitable hurdles you'll face in running your business.

2. A growth mindset

If everyone in your business has a growth mindset you will get success. When you think in a growth-related way, it's relatively easy to be fearless and challenge the status quo, says Nicolaus. Given how quickly everything changes in a startup this is essential. If you don't have a growth mindset, you'll be left behind, he says.

3. Ownership

This is the willingness to take responsibility for your own actions. It sounds simple, but it's easy to foster a sense of ownership within yourself but not so easy to tell other people how to do it – and certainly not to make them want to do it. First, they need to accept that something needs to be done and then to take on personal responsibility for tackling it. As Nicolaus says, “ it's never “not my job”. As a leader, part of your role is to make sure your people have the same sense of mission that you do and that they're not afraid to fail if they find the challenge too difficult. That way they'll feel excited to take on a difficult problem. They'll be thinking about the rewards rather than the downsides.

4. Adaptability

If you don't have a flexible enough mindset, you won't be able to change direction in a timely manner to cope with the risk and instability inherent in any startup. Not only is a new business bound to shift in its priorities from day to day, but the external forces of globalisation and new technologies demand that founders need to be nimble in their response.

5. Humility

This is the self-awareness to be open-minded and to accept that you don't know everything, nor do you have to. Adopting this approach allows you to fail fast and to learn even faster. Humility spills over into every aspect of life, both personal and professional. And in hypergrowth the ability to develop rapidly through knowing the limitations of your understanding is especially important. This goes alongside having a philosophy of serving others both internally and externally. The most successful startups are the most customer service oriented, says Nicolaus.

6. Innovation

At Singaporean multinational mobile virtual network operator Circles.Life a favoured quote was that if you shoot for the moon and miss it you'll still land among the stars. Boldness and innovation are so important in a startup. That's your whole reason for existence. If you can overextend yourself in the pursuit of achieving your goals you'll achieve so much more than if you're satisfied with enough.

According to Nicolaus these six ingredients make up the startup way of life. They're the elements that, if you have them in both your personal and professional world, will help you to remain adaptable and to focus on making a positive difference. They're the essence of any founder and any successful new business.

Alex Nicolaus, pictured below, is a people and culture leader who began his career at some of the world’s largest corporations before moving to the startup world at Grab. Circles.Life and becoming head of people at global fintech company Paysend. He is author of Startup Culture: Your Superpower for Sustainable Growth 

Alex Nicolaus

Published 6 October 2021
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