Home Our Thinking From starting out to scaling up, take your culture along for the ride.

From starting out to scaling up, take your culture along for the ride.

4 mins read
Chloe Lamb

There is no sole indisputable description for culture, it’s not rooted in policy, structure and tradition. Culture isn’t free fruit and pizza parties. Culture is a living breathing reflection of the core values of a business, it’s a sense of belonging, a feeling, a way we do and say things, a series of unwritten guidelines that everyone who joins the team decides to sign up for and opt into. It’s the heart and soul of a business. You need to work to build it, to maintain it. And unfortunately, in some cases, you can lose it overnight.

90% of startups fail, and according to CB Insights, 23% of startup failures can be linked to challenges revolving around team dynamics and company culture. Whether you’re a Biotech business introducing a sales and marketing team to support a founding group of scientists, or a Fintech rapidly scaling all business functions to meet product demand, the same question needs to be answered – how will our culture scale with us?

To really understand startup culture, you need to experience it. Until you have been deep in the trenches of a startup, through the highest highs of success and lowest lows of failure, it’s tough to really grasp what it feels like to be a part of the beginning. Early culture roots are often planted and nurtured by founders and jack-of-all-trade employees wearing multiple hats, moonlighting in HR, Communications, Finance and Operations. The relationships and experiences gained through building something from the ground up, give a sense of ownership to everyone involved, a level of exposure to insights and updates on the internal workings of a business, that you don’t experience in larger scale, established companies.

Startup teams are united in a common goal of their version of success. Success however, which generally looks like rounds of investment, new boards of stakeholders and ultimately a growth required scale up and rework from product to people, can be where the wheels of company culture start to fall off.

So, how can you scale your company and your culture?


Know what’s important and make it a non-negotiable.

Take the time to define your core values and cascade them through actions across all departments and employee touch points in the business. Be loud about them, integrate them into decision making and reflection. Put measures and supports in place to ensure employees are advised and engaged.

If accountability, taking ownership of your outcomes and actions, is at the core of how the business best operates, make it a non-negotiable.

  • Do company leaders emulate accountability? would employees see them as someone that takes ownership, is transparent, results-orientated and acts with integrity?
  • How are your recruitment teams screening for accountability in candidates? Is it a non-negotiable regardless of other skills and qualities a candidate might have?
  • How are people managers creating safe environments for team members to take accountability, to be honest and open, learn from mistakes and from each other. 


What got you here, won’t get you there.

Be open to change. Culture for ten people is very different from culture for one hundred people. As you grow, some parts of your culture need to adapt. This doesn’t mean losing core values, it means changing how those core values are demonstrated.

For example, transparency: A team of ten might get the low down on the board meeting over lunch with the CEO, whereas, a team of one hundred might attend a monthly company all hands, with updates with multiple leaders on the state of play across multiple departments.
In both situations, the employees involved will likely feel that there’s a lot of transparency on company information.

Scale how you demonstrate core values, don’t leave them behind and don’t expect them to stay the same.


Build teams around business needs not people.

This is often the hardest pill to swallow, especially for founders and early-stage employees. The want to reward loyal, long serving or well-liked employees can be blinded by emotion. Promoting highly respected subject matter experts that aren’t strong leaders, to people managers, can destroy team culture and contribute to slowed growth and development. Creating roles for employees with special interests that don’t address business needs or aspirations, set people up for failure and send the wrong message to other employees.

Some teammates won’t adjust well as a business grows and that’s okay. Hanging onto toxic team members because of legacy can hurt everyone else – one rotten apple can taint the whole fruit bowl.

Positive culture keeps people motivated and everyone needs to buy in.