Culture Isn't a Distraction, OK Punk?

05/04/2015 08:07 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2016


Your startup's culture exists from day one whether you decide it's important or not. Ignore it and you're missing a trick.

"There may be no 'I' in team, but there's a 'me' if you look hard enough."
- David Brent, The Office

The other day I received the following tweet: "The Happy Startup Canvas... struggling to see value."

Why is that, I asked to the sender?

"I think it's a distraction, early, when everything depends on product-market fit. When scaling, however..."

He was referring to the top half of our business design canvas, the elements that we believe make up the DNA of your company, namely:

  1. Vision: What change do you want to see in the world?
  2. Purpose: Why does your company exist, other than for profit?
  3. Values: What core values will guide the decisions you make?
  4. Story: What story do you want people to tell about you?

So, is this a distraction early on?

Should we worry about the 'fluffy' stuff when we should be laser focused on finding customers to buy our product?

Can't we start to think about that once we start to scale, when it becomes more important?

You can, but it's so Business 1.0.

Whether you're just a budding entrepreneur with an idea or 4 co-founders trying to get traction, there is a DNA that is uniquely yours -- your company already has a culture. Just because you choose to ignore it until you're ready, it doesn't mean it will go away.

"Your culture and your brand are two sides of the same coin."
-Tony Hsieh

So rather than parking the human side of your company for now while you focus on the 'business' why not lead with it?

Consider this for a second.

What if...

  • Working on these elements would help you in your search for product-market fit and empower you to make better decisions?
  • Clarifying your vision & purpose and having a story worth spreading will help build a tribe of passionate customers.
  • Communicating what you believe in will help to attract that great hire that will allow you to build a world-class product?
  • Nurturing a strong culture early on (no matter how small your team) will set you on the right path for future growth, rather than be an after-thought later?

You can't slap on a nice sugar-coated culture overnight when you decide to scale, so why not bake it into your DNA from day one?

You might thank yourself for it.

Business, but better.

So don't chase customers and sell like hell.

Instead carve out a beautiful vision that inspires you and your team, share it with the world and watch in awe as your mission becomes a magnet.

A magnet that will attract your dream customers and employees.

The proof is right here.

The Happy Startup School is our dreamcatcher. A stage for myself and my co-founder Carlos to build a business in our image and live our values daily.

  • We didn't start off with a business plan, we started off with a frustration with the status quo.
  • We had a desire for change and we made it happen.
  • We don't set financial targets, we do things that get us excited and get to work with people we love. That's success to us.

At no point was money a motivation for getting this off the ground. We just wanted to have fun, do some good and make the world a little bit better. As our community grows we get more fuel for our mission.

We're confident if we are true to our vision the money will come. And even if it doesn't, it's already made us rich in so many other ways.

I'll be happy when...

So don't be one of those founders that delays the important things and says...

  • "Culture can wait"
  • "Design can wait"
  • "Happiness can wait"

If this is you, maybe you need to re-think your approach.

Is focusing solely on the mechanics of the business helping or hindering? Will it increase your chance of success, or make it less likely?

What may on the surface seem to be a distraction, actually could be the #1 activity that helps you achieve the nirvana that is product-market fit.

As John Kay points out in his excellent book Obliquity:

"Obliquity is the principle that our complex goals are best achieved indirectly. For instance, the happiest people aren't necessarily those who focus on happiness; the most successful cities aren't planned; and the most profit-orientated companies aren't usually the most profitable."

Purpose as a route to profits.

In this age of the Purpose economy, customers are looking for more than just a transaction between buyer and seller -- they want to know your story.

Employees are looking for more than a pay check -- they want to do meaningful work and find a company that aligns with their values.

At the end of the day, it's all about people, not stuff.

Your culture is your brand. An opportunity to show your true colours and shine.

Do the right thing. The money will follow.

Laurence McCahill, Founder of The Happy Startup School and Spook Studio, helps entrepreneurs and leaders build purpose-driven companies that put people and happiness before profits. Contact Laurence: @happystartups & @spookstudio.