How to Build a Sustainable Startup Culture For Rapid Growth

In today’s fiercely competitive startup landscape, entrepreneurs are faced with new challenges on a daily basis. Beyond the actual viability of the market for their product or service, they must ensure that they focus on building a sustainable organization that continues to thrive as they grow and change.

Guiding a company from startup to success means finding the balance between a sustainable growth strategy, a culture that reflects your values and supports your people, and a leadership team that will help drive the change.

Finding that balance is a challenge, however. It’s not just about having a cool office or great benefits. You have to ensure your employees and your culture are aligned with your vision for growth. Your leadership has to be invested in the values and direction of the company; fostering an ecosystem that drives the behaviors you need for success.

Know WHY You’re In Business

The most important aspect of your startup culture is ensuring it aligns with WHY you’re in business. Is it about providing exceptional customer service?  Is it speed and efficiency?  World change?

Whatever it is, the culture should be reflected in what your customers see and experience. What are people passionate about, and what is the ideal environment that supports that? Some would argue attention to culture is even more important than processes, plans, and requirements.

Keep in mind: looking for culture fit is great when hiring, so long as you want to reinforce the culture you currently have. If, however, you are looking to change the culture, hiring and keeping people who embody those values and behaviors is the way to go.

Start by understanding why you’re in business and what kinds of values define your organization. Starting with an intentional and authentic understanding of this can serve as a hiring lens as your company grows.

It’s then the responsibility of senior leadership and other key personnel to give it the momentum you need to drive change in the right direction. You have to ensure that your people feel supported by the leadership and culture so they stick around.

How Important Are First Impressions?

Today’s rapidly growing startups are often pressured to find the balance between looking cool, hip and successful to attract top talent, while not blowing their budget on office space and benefits.

While a small company cannot keep up with the likes of Google in terms of benefits or campus amenities, first impressions are still critical to attracting and retaining the right people.

Careful attention must be paid to the culture that is visible. But, more importantly, the substance must be there as well. Perks, games, and exposed brick walls mean nothing if they are simply window dressing. They must serve some sort of greater purpose within the organization.

Start with ‘why’ and align your culture and your people around those values.

3 Tips For Building A Thriving Culture

Here are three specific considerations for your rapidly growing company to build and nurture a sustainable startup culture:

1. Use core values as the hiring lens. Core values should align with, and reflect company culture. If they don’t, it may be time for you and your team to do some rethinking to do on that front first!

Core values are where an organization has opportunity to reflect culture in written form. So much of culture is intangible or understood and not necessarily discussed or documented. Revisit the ideas that inspired you to be in business in the first place, and use them as a compass to guide your hiring decisions.

Put those core values to work.

2. Long to hire and quick to fire. It’s an old business axiom but it has some relevance here. Take the time to explore, inquire, test, and evaluate each candidate to ensure that they align well with your organizational culture. Do they believe in the same values that your company follows? Are they going to proactively improve the existing culture as your company grows and changes?

Having extended dialogue with each of your candidates also ensures you’re giving them the opportunity to evaluate company fit as well. Beyond just wanting or needing a job for a job’s sake, what role can your company play in their career and/or personal development over time? Does your company’s mission align with their goals as a person and a professional?

“Quick to fire” may not be as important here as “quick to ensure people are sticking to core values” and practicing the kinds of behaviors and qualities you want to see reflected in your culture.

3. Disrupt patterns through culture oriented actions and events. Reinforce your company culture through disruptive and experiential organization activities.

Internally, this means nurturing your culture among your team. Host events to discuss organizational objectives and provide opportunities for people to provide their input. Think about development programs to train on specific intended outcomes.

Externally, it means creating customer experiences that involve personnel in culturally specific ways. These are opportunities to show off your company culture to your customers, and give them an idea of how your values and your people align with your branding and customer experience.


It is almost too easy to ignore culture in a growing/thriving startup.  We get caught up in the operations of success, the glory of new outcomes, or the challenges faced.  Ignoring culture now, however, at this crucial juncture, more than likely creates trouble spots as the company grows.  Being mindful of using culture as a hiring lens, as a means for guiding continued development, and as a springboard for a broader diversification of experiential activities will lead to benefits not only in the maturation of culture, but in the growth and success of the business overall.

Onboarding New Employees: How To Build A Sustainable Process

In rapidly growing companies, hiring and retaining the right employees is one of the hardest things for effective leaders to get right.

On one hand, your company needs the right process in place to hire and keep the right people. There has to be an appealing lure to attract them, and the benefits have to be worthwhile enough to keep them.

On the other hand, the company branding and benefits you offer can only tell them so much of the story. The everyday behaviors that shape your organizational culture will have an ongoing effect on each one of your employees.

It’s important to realize that your people are your company’s most valuable asset, and finding the right “fit” between company and that most valuable asset is paramount to success.

There are bigger things to consider than benefits and bonuses when bringing on new people. Your workforce, particularly the millennial generation, wants to know what your company stands for.  They want to be part of something bigger than themselves.

The way you communicate your benefits and purpose to them from the beginning may be the most important part in setting them up for success.

So, how do you give your new employees an accurate picture of your company’s brand, its values, and their place in the overall picture of the organization?

Here are 3 points to consider when building a sustainable onboarding process for your growing company:

1. Does It Scale?

When you’re small, as in a startup, it’s much easier to find the right people and orient them quickly with the rest of your team.

It’s likely that small companies thoroughly vet their candidates for cultural fit when they hire. But, as an organization grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the same processes. A strategy that works for a group of 20 people may not scale to a company of 200 people.

Make sure your onboarding processes are built to last. Rapidly growing companies who plan ahead of these changes will see more success, particularly as they delegate these onboarding processes to other hiring managers as they grow.

2. What Information Do You Include?

Onboarding and orienting employees is challenging.  Organizations face a balancing act between conveying large quantities of information and keeping new employees engaged and interested.

Considering most employees will only really understand the organization’s culture once they are officially on the job, picking and choosing what information to share during the onboarding process adds to the challenge.

Most people today like to digest snackable information, not an entire meal at once. Consider keeping the information segments of your process short, so employees can take away the bite-size nuggets and figure out where they might want to ask questions to get further insights.

One recent example is Samsung’s orientation rap video that went viral to mixed reviews. While Samsung’s effort to communicate a lot of information in an engaging, short format should be applauded, the execution left something to be desired.

Their video is a perfect example of why it’s so important to keep the context in mind. Your employees are there to be professionals; to further their careers. If your presentation is too slapstick or silly, you risk losing people to it as something that is nonsensical, or not a fit for the organization and its people.

On the other hand, a completely dry delivery of rules, stats, and facts about your company can put your new hires to sleep, causing them to disengage before they start their first shift.

Your challenge is keeping them interested and engaged in a way that both reflects your culture and doesn’t turn people off.

3. What Is The Employee Experience?

Are you sitting your new employees in front of a computer to go through self-directed orientation? Are you personally illustrating your values and guidelines on a whiteboard? Do you partner them with a senior member of your team to learn the ropes?

These first steps of the onboarding process are not just a way to convey information. They also give your brand new employee a taste of what your culture is like on a daily basis.

They can walk away feeling motivated, supported, and comfortable in their new environment, or they can leave feeling overloaded and confused.

Empowering Your People

There’s no doubt that your organizational culture is based largely on the everyday behaviors of your people. Finding the right people who fit into your overall strategy and vision is a challenge in itself. Once you find them, however, your challenge becomes empowering them to carry out your vision to every customer they meet.

It takes more effort than simply putting warm bodies on the sales floor or in the call center. You have to equip them with the right tools to do their job well, carry your vision for success, and feel a purpose behind what they are doing for your company on a daily basis.

“If you take care of your people, your people will take care of your customers and your business will take care of itself.” –JW Marriott

Stuart Farrand

What ‘Frozen’ Can Teach Businesses About a Successful Pivot

If you’ve been anywhere near a child in the past year, you’ve probably heard the “Frozen” soundtrack. You’ve probably also seen an abundance of Elsa Halloween costumes, “Frozen” picture books…well, you get the idea.

But even if you can’t go a day without breaking into your slightly painful soprano of “Let It Go,” you might not have thought about what Disney’s “Frozen” can teach you about pivoting. 

According to Eric Ries, author of “The Lean Startup,” a pivot is making a change in strategy without making a change in vision. This change can be minute or enormous, but it always builds on a tested, successful component of the business’s overarching mission.

Disney is a master of the pivot. All of its movies create the opportunity to move into merchandise, resorts, and theme parks, anchored by the wholesome and exciting Disney brand.  The lovable snowman Olaf alone has created hundreds of pivot points. Disney has transformed the animated character into cuddly toys, pajamas, snow globes, and even the host of the Disney California Adventure Park holiday show “Winter Dreams.” Elsa and Anna now have their own ice show and book series, and they may even be appearing in a “Once Upon a Time” spinoff.

From a storytelling standpoint, “Frozen” has two characters that fit into the highly profitable Disney Princess theme, but Disney has pivoted away from the “damsel in distress” archetype to embrace the maturing image of the empowered heroine by creating two sisters who are strong, independent, and courageous. While “Frozen” does feature a romance (the bread and butter of the Disney Princess franchise), the main love story is really about the love between two sisters.

But you don’t have to be Disney to use pivoting to your advantage. These tips will help you harness your flexibility and imagination to pivot successfully while staying true to your core values:

1. Capitalize on Your Best Idea

Sure, Disney can pivot all day long. It has a whole universe of characters and scenes to work with. But think back to the outset of the company. Walt Disney began the studio from one storyboard that worked. He took this pattern and repeated it, pivoting his way into other mediums and stories.

Rather than trying to create a massive library of ideas, start by capitalizing on your best idea. It may turn out to be the beginning of your universe.

2. Maximize the Customer Experience

Successful pivoting happens when you don’t just think about maximizing profits, but also focus on creating an ever-growing customer experience. Disney does this through its parks, products, and films. There’s always something new for the customer to experience, and every aspect of the delivery embodies Disney’s themes, its values, and customers’ favorite characters.

To maximize the customer experience, go where your customers are, and watch what they’re doing. If they’re taking products or services online, move online. If they want a mobile experience, make sure your company delivers.

 3. Stay Open-Minded to Market Trends

The box office sales for “Frozen” surpassed $400 million, but its worldwide ticket sales hit more than three times that amount. The movie industry has been globally minded for decades, but sometimes, small businesses don’t think beyond borders.

Stay flexible in your brainstorming sessions so you can seize opportunities and respond to emerging market trends. Try pivoting from your most obvious and least obvious products. Bring in your whole team to brainstorm opportunities for each, and see what the outcomes would be.

4. Focus on Integration

When you think about Disney franchises, everything is integrated. Yes, Disney parks are profitable on their own, but they’re also designed and operated to market the latest Disney movie and sell merchandise that goes along with it.

Instead of thinking of your business as a collection of separate product lines, imagine your business as its own universe of integrated products and services that are all working together to create one customer experience.

5. Remember Your Story

The “Frozen” film has produced endless pivot points. Each character has a unique fan base, and the soundtrack has a life of its own, but these points all boil down to one original story.

Successfully pivoting into other industries and experiences takes a deep understanding of your core mission and values, so build your company with both your present and future in mind. Hold regular brainstorming sessions about the future of your brand so off-shooting projects will always be connected to your company’s values. Integrate this story into everything you deliver so your customers know what they can expect from your brand.

By making pivoting a way of life, you can build a universe around your brand just like Walt Disney did when he put his cartoons in motion. And the next time you’re in the shower belting out “Let It Go,” just think how far your own ideas can take you.

this article originally appeared on Forbes

The Improv Experience

I’ll have the opportunity on Monday to co-present Improv at one of the Mega Sessions of the 2014 SHRM Annual Conference. (That’s short for Society for Human Resources Management. And Mega, which is – ironically – short for Enormous.) If you are attending, here is the information on our session:

Improv is a powerful tool for organizational culture because of the skills focus around teamwork, listening, and being “in the moment”!! And as part of experiential learning through providing opportunities to get incredibly disruptive/creative – AND through participation in a transformational, shared experience. The reason this session (or, this type of session, if you are not at SHRM Monday) might be helpful to you as HR professionals? It provides great skill development for leaders…bringing out the best in employees, getting off “the script” and unlocking new perspectives!

As I was preparing for the session, I wanted to make sure I was armed with the best Improv references for attendees and other interested parties. (Say, for instance, I’m stopped on the street and asked for good Improv blog post references. It’s the nature of the business.) My mentor, the man commonly known as Improv Guru, Shawn Westfall, actually wrote one of the most helpful introductory pieces on disruptive improvisation I’ve come across. In it, he answers “Why Improv?” and how it can potentially help organizations. I look forward to sharing the stage with Shawn Monday at SHRM, as part of my close business relationship with BossaNova Consulting and The Get Real Project.

Another great reference I’ll be tuning people to comes from my colleague and the founder of The Get Real Project (hot link:, Andrea Howe. Co-author of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook, Andrea writes about improving business, gaining trust, client relationships and the like. One of her Improv posts gets right to the basic steps of our improv skill development.

We hope to deliver a thought-provoking and improvisation-inspiring session and look forward to questions. If you can’t make the session, but have an interest in learning more about the topic and how it can help your corporate culture, follow me on Twitter: @thecarypaul or, follow gothamCulture on LinkedIn.

Engaging, Sticky, and Effective

I’ve seen a lot of professionals forget what they’ve learned through training programs. And I’m not talking here about detail and minutia – but about the KEY objectives and takeaways. If they’ve forgotten those, they’ve wasted a lot of time and money. And, those two things are in short supply these days.

Many people turn to Experiential Learning to deliver the “sticky” (Heath Brothers, I’m looking at you), because making things sticky isn’t just important. It is essential. Nigel Rayment wrote a recent Huffington Post piece regarding Experiential Learning that got me thinking:

Given his take, the question becomes: Are your experiential learning programs really learning programs?

Consider Rayment’s criteria:

  • Specific learning outcomes: The outcome of the exercise must be specific and have depth
  • Participants should understand their starting point: no guesswork here…as Covey taught us all, “Begin with the end in mind”
  • Structured learning cycle: experience, discuss, learn, apply, review
  • Interact with the participants: this is a facilitative approach
  • Debriefing is a key: immediate and intentional discussion
  • Structured re-assessment: sustain the impact of the learning, rinse/repeat

If you can’t answer ‘yes’ to all six, there is a danger that your experiential learning programs aren’t achieving the desired results. If that is the case, you’d either have to revise the experiential learning program to meet the criteria, or consider the real possibility that experiential learning isn’t the right answer for this instance. (Option 3 could then potentially be that it is time to vacation…?)

I started using this criterion in my consulting practice,hesitatingly at first, because I feared the worst: that my experiential learning approach might have been engaging, innovative, and TOTALLY without value. Let me report: it has been a great test. Where I thought such a structured approach would inhibit the enjoyment factor and creativity of the designs, it has been just the opposite. Instead, the structure has been liberating, and given me permission to add additional creative wattage. And clients have noticed. The connections to mission, “real” work, daily impact have been tangible for them. First, in the session, and in the weeks to come, I’ve heard positive feedback regarding the effectiveness of the sessions.