How To Maintain A Startup Culture Even After You’ve Made It Big

There comes a time in every scrappy startup’s life when it’s no longer an underdog fighting for survival, but has morphed into a full-fledged business. Now, every day isn’t a battle to gain traction and find users. Rather, you’re looking for ways to codify what works and grow your customer base.


There’s no doubt this is an accomplishment worth celebrating, but as you cruise into the next chapter of your startup’s life, you’ll notice something is different. All of a sudden, your vibrant startup culture has hardened and started to resemble the run-of-the-mill corporate structure you probably wanted to escape in the first place.

It’s true, you’re not a startup anymore in the literal sense of the word, but there’s still a lot of value to be gained in behaving like one. But how can you preserve that early-stage feel in a company that’s further along? Here are a few tips to help you maintain a startup culture even when you’ve reached the big leagues:

“Allow your best employees to hold cross-department roles.”

Keep communications open
When you first started up, you probably only had a few employees. While everyone had some sort of loosely defined role, there likely weren’t any departments in the official sense of the word. When people wanted to reach out to one another, whether it was an intern seeking a managerial opinion, or co-workers looking to collaborate on a project, they could just walk up to someone’s desk and start a conversation.

As companies grow, everyone takes on more formal roles and the lines of communication can be a little more structured. This can have some benefits, but it takes away from the startup feel when managers and staff can’t be on the same level in terms of communication. You can prevent this by having regular meetings with all stakeholders and encouraging managers to keep an open-door policy.


Allow for cross-department roles
One of the coolest parts of working at a startup is that you aren’t pigeonholed into a narrow role. You can wear multiple hats and be involved in a wide range of projects. Unfortunately, this usually goes out the window once a business starts to scale. This can be a major impediment to continued innovation since some of the best ideas come from the cross-disciplinary thinking that comes when your employees are doing multiple tasks at once.

To keep a startup atmosphere and encourage creative thinking, allow for cross-department roles for the employees who prove they can handle it. This will help you shed that stale feeling a business can have when everyone is stuck in one role and bring everyone back to the days when everyone had a hand in everything.


Instill a sense of overcoming

A feature article in Inc. showed how the Black Tomato Group, an Australian company specializing in experiential travel throughout the Outback, retained its startup culture even as the business expanded. According to the article, Black Tomato suffered a number of setbacks on its way to becoming an established business, but those hardships only strengthened the core team and made them more focused on their goals. Through it all, for every problem they faced, big or small, the team celebrated every victory as if it were the World Series.

They always saw themselves as underdogs, so recognizing every accomplishment, even if it was something small, was key to giving everyone the sense of overcoming something that was in the way. Keeping this feeling alive has been essential to the company’s ongoing startup culture. You can do the same: Recognize achievements of all sizes and make them publicly known. Showing that the business is still having breakthroughs will keep everyone in that scrappy underdog mentality.

One of the best parts of working at a startup is being surrounded by talented and ambitious people. Remember that when you’re hiring, no matter how established you are.


Maintain strong hiring standards
When you’re running a huge company, if you make a hiring mistake here or there, it’s not the end of the world. But in a startup, a bad hire can set you back dramatically. That’s why early-stage startups are extremely selective about who they hire. It’s basic arithmetic: When there are fewer people in a company, one bad egg can throw the whole bunch off.

People work at startups because they want to be around other talented, driven individuals. Don’t lose sight of this – your people are the basis of your culture after all. When you hire new employees, go into it with the mindset that you had in the beginning. You owe it to yourself and your current workers to keep that culture alive by bringing in people who fit into what’s already there.


Put limits on team sizes
Additionally, suggested to keep your team sizes small even as your company grows. In an early-stage startup, the sense of camaraderie through working with a tight-knit group was what kept everyone pushing through the long days. Naturally, when a team gets too big, you lose some of that internal cohesion.

Keeping your teams small is a great way to bring a startup vibe to the workplace. Be cautious though: When you have multiple small teams working on one big project, you’ll need more management resources to make sure everyone is working well together.

“Give your employees some free time each week to pursue side projects.”

Offer a chance to experiment
In a startup, nothing is set in stone. People are free to try new processes and ideas to see what sticks, and this is what makes things fun and interesting. When you get big, however, employee handbooks and process manuals replace that pioneering spirit.

You can copy Google here – give your employees some free time each week to pursue side projects. These may be the impetus into a new idea for your company. Additionally, you can allow different teams to act as pilot programs for new workflow processes. By testing these ideas on a small scale, you might stumble into a new way of doing things companywide while fostering a startup-esque experimental culture.


What you can do right now
Don’t wait until your culture is completely stale to try and shake things up. Try these tips now to invigorate your company with a startup vibe:

  • Allow your best employees to wear multiple hats at once.
  • Keep your teams small and allow for seamless communication between departments.
  • Make sure managers have an open-door policy.
  • Let some of your teams or individual employees break ground on a side project or experiment on something they’ve been waiting to try.
  • Celebrate achievements big and small, showing breakthroughs are happening every day, even if your company has gotten big.
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