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How to keep the soul of your startup culture through rapid growth

Photo courtesy of Red Nova Labs.

The transition from startup to established business is a truly exciting time, and during this high-growth phase, things move – and change – fast. It’s vital for startups to balance successful business growth and company culture without losing the special sauce that got them there in the first place.

With a little foresight, you can continue to develop the company and keep the soul of your startup at the same time. I’ve seen it done first-hand. Check out these strategies to keep the heart and spirit of your company alive throughout the process:

Interview for the vibe you want at the company.

You know that old saying, “people leave managers, not companies.” Well, it’s especially true for high-growth companies. With rapid growth comes the need for more people, more management, and more structure, which means some people may begin to step into management roles they weren’t expecting, while others who aren’t used to being managed may have to start getting used to it – and fast. It’s crucial to promote and hire the right people to keep the ones you already have happy.

The key is to screen out candidates that don’t fit your vibe – for your sake and theirs. A person who looks amazing on paper might not fit your startup’s core philosophy. Plus, if they have overly rigid expectations for the job, they’ll be unhappy in the position. Encourage thought diversity while hiring people who are committed, flexible, and there to grow. If you get the feeling that a candidate is just there to cash in and isn’t truly ready to join your startup’s crazy family, you need to carefully consider whether or not this person will be a good fit. A person who doesn’t like their job or is inflexible is not good for company morale, and low morale is bad for culture.

Photo courtesy of Red Nova Labs.

Keep open feedback circles alive.

Remember in your early startup days, when everyone would get together and spitball ideas? No one held back, and the creativity in the room was palpable. Open feedback is core to maintaining your startup vibe. As the company grows, more opinions are thrown into the fire and the process of asking for feedback can seem more opaque. But it doesn’t have to be. Ask people their opinions on the company’s vision and how they feel about ideas, then take their feedback and do something about it.

To keep everyone happy and in the loop, provide plenty of opportunities for your team to suggest changes and new ideas. For example, asking for feedback in weekly stand-ups can help your team keep the creativity alive and make it easy for even the quieter employees to suggest new ideas. Open-door policies aren’t enough – the process of soliciting feedback has to include an easy way for groups and individuals to bring new ideas to the table to keep a culture of innovation alive.

Don’t conform to business standards unless they make sense for you.

“Policy” is a dirty word at startups, implying restrictions, unnecessary layers of communication, and time-sucking meetings. But as your startup continues to grow, it becomes necessary to implement some kind of standards to keep everyone on the same page.

What you want to avoid is forcing employees to jump through hoops to accomplish the same thing they used to be able to do effortlessly. Keeping a flat organizational structure can help preserve the open communication your company had in the early days.

While some policies are necessary and even helpful to your fast-growing startup, it’s vital to always consider the “why” behind a new policy before introducing it. Get feedback from the team on policies, and re-evaluate as needed. It’s crucial to ensure all policies make sense for your unique business to make sure you’re not just following a corporate trend.

Photo courtesy of Red Nova Labs.

Involve everyone in company goals.

I’m a huge goal person. And hopefully, you’re hiring people at your company who are “goal-people,” too. But it’s not enough to just hire goal people and hand them a print-out with the company goals for the year. They have to feel like they’re a part of the process.

Involving everyone means being transparent. Naturally, as you hire more and more employees, information silos will begin to form, and team members form loyalties within their department. But to maintain your startup vibe, you’ve got to work against this natural segregation. Get people all together, and often. One of these get-togethers needs to be focused on an open discussion about company goals – what goals to set for the quarter or the year, how you did on last quarter’s (or last year’s) goals, and what the payoff is for achieving the goal.

Make meeting a company goal a buzz-worthy conversation, and get everyone involved in the process. Then, decide on a big celebration for achieving the goal that everyone can get excited about. Whether this is a company trip to El Playa Del Carmen or building a communal outdoor space onto the office for Friday patio beers, get everyone on board with the one big thing you’re going to do after you meet the one big goal. When everyone feels like they’re a part of the decision-making process, it helps to create buzz  – everyone stays hungry and productive while attacking goals.

Take care of people.

There needs to be something baked into your startup that makes everyone feel like they’re part something special, even as the company grows. And it doesn’t come naturally – it takes serious effort.

While no company is perfect, and it is still work at the end of the day, and you have to find a way to give back that makes people say, “this is why I love working here.” Because the truth is, when you feel like your company has your back, you’re more committed and willing to go above and beyond in your role. At Red Nova Labs, we’re big on celebrating our accomplishments. (Think: treating the whole company to a Royal’s game every year, quarterly parties to celebrate meeting and exceeding our goals, and catered lunches from everyone’s favorite BBQ joint.) Even just surprising your team with donuts and congratulating them publicly can make a huge difference. The goal here is to find a scalable way to continue the tradition of giving back to your team in a big way, and to make it happen consistently.

Expansion is an exciting time for young startups. But leaders, take note and make sure your rapid growth doesn’t end up trashing your ever-important culture. Bottle that secret sauce and keep it close at hand.

Jana Haecherl is a marketing communications specialist for Red Nova Labs dba storEDGE in Westwood, Kansas. She is a guest contributor to Silicon Prairie News.

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