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Scaling Startup Culture

How to Scale Startup Culture

Every company was a startup once. The biggest, ugliest, most bureaucratic company you’ve ever worked for had to start somewhere. It was probably a lot cooler, a lot nimbler, and a much better place to be an employee or a customer.

Then it stopped being those things and became what it is. Here are a few ways to avoid that fate.

Hire people who align with your vision, not your startup.

Your company needs people who understand and care about where you’re going with your company. The right people will believe in your vision and values and work with passion and resolve. They will amplify your message to your employees and your customers. They’ll make sacrifices and take personal risks to be part of what you’re building because they want to help you make a dent in the universe.

On the other hand, there are myriad people who just want to be part of a startup, which is just a euphemism for “they want pre-IPO stock and they hope to get rich.” Don’t hire these people. They’re not compelling and they’re not going to stick with you when things get tough.

Think small.

You never want to become a Big Company. Being a big company is great, but being a Big Company is not. Big Companies grow; big companies scale. You can have lots of employees and make lots of money without ever becoming a Big Company. You just have to figure out how to scale what you’re doing while you’re small and successful. Think about this: would you rather have ten smaller, independent, local companies operating with 50% margins and loyal customers, or one Big Company, with best-of-breed frameworks and pedigreed executives, but that competes on price?

Never give into pressure to “leverage opportunities of scale.” Never need a meeting to discuss your Org Chart. Never believe that you need to look like the Big Guys. They don’t know what they’re doing most of the time. Really, they don’t. CEOs of Big Companies are scared, disempowered, and often fighting for their lives while their companies burn. Think small.


If you want to keep your startup culture as you scale, you need to keep everyone focused on the goal posts. If you have to stop and explain how to kick a football, either you’ve hired the wrong people or you’re the wrong leader.

Leadership has nothing to do with supervision. Supervising is where you tell your employees what to do and how to do it. Leading is where you tell your employees the destination and then let them surprise you with how amazingly they get you there. As you scale your company, you’ll need to hire people to help manage it. Hire leaders, not supervisors.

Don’t focus on stuff.

One of the worst 21st-century business ideas ever conceived was that a mile of free food in the cafeteria would produce a great culture. Free sodas are fine. A workout room? Not terrible. But if you make the job about the perks, you’ll get people who love perks, not people who love what you stand for. I worked in Silicon Valley for ten years. You know what a lot of people said about their companies? “We get free food.” If your answer to hiring great talent is free food, you are not selling your vision well. You’re becoming a commodity employer with some cool stuff.

Just say no to policies and procedures.

In some companies, policies and procedures are more sacred than customers. I can prove it: an employee can lose an important customer and keep their job by saying, “I followed the policy.” Some companies have entire teams of people who have no idea how the company stays in business, but they know the policies and procedures. There are actual meetings where employees learn about the policy and procedure changes.

Well, guess what the employees are aligned to? Uh-huh. They have no idea what’s in the company’s strategic plan, but they know to turn the lights off when they leave the bathroom, and they know which form to fill out to get a stapler.

The only reason you create a policy in the first place is that your employees (a) don’t know what to do, and (b) lack the judgment, initiative, resourcefulness, and business understanding to figure it out. This doesn’t mean you need policies; it means you need better employees or better leaders.

Don’t be cool.

Seriously, if you have any ego wrapped up in how fancy, trendy, or cutting-edge your company makes you look, you should quit now and go get a job at a Big Company.

Don’t confuse entrepreneurship with leadership.

You’re an awesome entrepreneur. That’s incredible. Seriously, there aren’t many people who can do what you do. The problem is that entrepreneurship and leadership are virtually unrelated skill sets. You don’t have to be Steve Jobs. Just put the right people in the right leadership roles and make sure that they’re committed and aligned.

Of course, the list could go on forever. The bottom line is this: the things that make a Big Company slow, uncompelling, and unremarkable are fairly easy to see. There’s nothing noble or special about being a Big Company. Don’t dream about it and don’t feel insecure about it. Instead, figure out how you’ll scale to become a big company that you can be as proud of as you are of your startup.

665e8b38e7e6-matt_wagnerThis post was contributed by Matt Wagner, Vice President of Strategy at Client Focus.

Matt Wagner believes in people. He is a Silicon Valley veteran focused on aligning culture, strategy, and innovation so that everyone can grow and thrive. He has worked for companies from 5 to 50,000 employees on 5 continents involving eleven mergers and acquisitions.





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