Culture Starts At The Top

A few days ago, there was an article in the Colorado Sun describing how Techstars‘ “Give First” mantra has permeated the local ecosystem and has gone on to make its way into startup communities all around the globe. “Give First” isn’t some slick slogan that founder & co-CEO David Cohen created as a marketing tool, it’s a deeply held belief of his that’s woven into the fabric of our company’s DNA; the notion that giving first without any expectation of something in return will more often than not come back to you in strange and wonderfully unpredictable ways. As the reporter notes, it’s the first principal of our Code Of Conduct and the foundation of one of the most remarkable cultures I’ve ever seen at a company which has scaled.

It’s easy to have a great company culture when you’re small. My friend Bo Peabody once wrote in Lucky or Smart “Lucky things happen to entrepreneurs who start fundamentally innovative, morally compelling and philosophically positive companies. Why? Because lots of smart people will gather around companies with these qualities. As it turns out, precious few of them exist. And the vast majority of human beings, and certainly most of the smart ones, are caring creatures who would, given the chance, prefer to spend their valuable time in a positive setting contributing to the betterment of society rather than in a negative environment contributing to its detriment. Shocking, I know, but true.”

It’s incredibly difficult though to maintain a positive and rewarding culture with scale. With more people come more layers of management. Early employees who helped foster and maintain a positive and unique culture eventually bemoan how “things are changing” and some inevitably leave. New people are brought in and have their own ideas about culture and values.

After many years of being around startups, I’ve learned that it’s only through the behavior of a company’s leaders can an organization sustain the type of environment that attracts and keeps highly talented people. For example, I saw this happen at SendGrid. Having a positive and rewarding culture was vitally important to founding CEO Isaac Saldana and over the course of a decade, he spent as much time thinking about that part of building the business as the product or fundraising. Subsequent CEO Jim Franklin and current CEO Sameer Dholakia embraced that same approach which has contributed to the why the company is rated as the #4 best public cloud company to work for by Glassdoor. I’m not sure that would be the case though if Isaac hadn’t been in a C-level position throughout the company’s journey to IPO, fostering the culture he created and leading by example.

Anyone who works at Techstars will tell you it’s a special place. You know that “no asshole rule” that startups love to talk about but usually gets broken around the first employee that management deems “irreplaceable?” Well I’ve been around Techstars since its inception and now that we’re approaching 300 people on 5 continents, I haven’t met a single person at our company that I wouldn’t be excited to go share a long dinner with. I’m convinced that our company’s unique culture has manifested itself in David’s image and it’s the primary reason we’re able to attract such remarkable people to come work with us.

Culture starts at the top. If you’re a founder, think of the organization or two you admire from a cultural perspective and reach out to the founders and find out what they did to maintain it through growth. Odds are it was with a lot of thoughts put into practice about what type of environment they wanted to create for their employees.


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