The culture secrets of unicorn startup CEOs

The culture secrets of unicorn startup CEOs

Creating a great company culture is not an option, it’s a necessity. According to a Glassdoor survey, 77% of staff would consider a company’s culture before applying for a job there and over half of the respondents said that company culture is more important than salary when it comes to job satisfaction. This is even more relevant to young job seekers as the number rises to 65% in the 18-to-34-year-old range. While high salaries and unique perks may have once been the keys to attracting top talent, this shows that a company’s mission and culture matter most to job seekers. So, how do you build a solid company culture that lays the foundation to a great place to work? 15 of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world reveal their best culture advice in our recent book Growing without borders: The unicorn CEO guide to communication and culture.

How to build a distinctive company culture at speed

In a fast-moving, high-growth environment, a strong company culture is the intangible sauce that binds the people inside it together. To build a distinctive culture at speed, the unicorn CEO’s objectives should be to define and communicate the company’s values, unite people behind a common goal, communicate the vision well so it is understood, and set and communicate expectations.

Defining and communicating your values

Vijay Tella, the CEO and founder of our client Workato, advises start-up CEOs to “prioritise the culture at least as much as the business.” Workato is Vijay’s fourth start-up and experience has taught him that culture is defined by the original team – the first employees. He adds, “It’s very hard when you are early stage in a start-up to think about culture when you are looking for survival and traction. But it’s really important to prioritise that equally.”

Featurespace’s CEO, Martina King, also admits that it is vital to define and communicate the company values as you scale. At one point, the whole Featurespace leadership team sat around a table to discuss this. “We thought long and hard about what the values of the company should be. For those of us who’d battled day in, day out, and we’d all worked together as a leadership team for a long time… there’s a shorthand. They don’t need to be articulated. But when you grow rapidly with lots of new people joining, then people do need to know what the values are.” Your values may already exist; your starting point should be to identify and define them.

Uniting your people behind a common goal

This is a huge challenge but one that needs to be overcome to thrive as a company. Working cultures around the world vary, individual commitment levels are unequal, and some roles feel less connected to the company’s objectives than others so recruiting becomes paramount. For Avinash Rugoobur, President and Chief Strategy Officer of Arrival, it all starts with making the right hires and ensuring that the culture is at the forefront every day. “Once you have that group of brilliant people, essentially my job is just to get out of the way and let them do their thing.”

Poppy Gustafsson, CEO of Darktrace, highlights the impact hiring has on the company’s culture as well. “The culture really is defined by the people that you bring in. It’s all about that hiring. It’s all about bringing on people that reflect the principles that you want to reflect to the outside world, and then bringing them in and training them and keep investing in employees. If you get that right, the culture will remain.” Hence recruit people who share or are willing to embrace your values.

Communicating the vision well so it is understood

“You’ve got to make sure everyone understands the vision so they can make the right decisions decentrally, even though they may not have been with the company for such a long time,” recommends Tim Sievers, CEO at Deposit Solutions. Understanding the vision is an empowering experience for individuals in your start-up. It enables them to make the right decisions.

Culture can also be reinforced through celebration. This approach is effective for Tipalti, reveals co-founder and CEO Chen Amit. Chen says, “We have a very clear cadence of celebrating those who are representative of the culture, those who did something great with the customers, those who really were really strong on collaboration. It’s a really collaborative team celebrating that, celebrating those who exemplify that, just showcasing what we believe in, what makes us successful.”

Setting and communicating expectations

Unicorns are often global businesses from the start. Multicultural teams require cultural sensitivity – hearing what you say is not the same as truly understanding your message. As Arik Shtilman, CEO of Rapyd, says on this issue, “You need to understand the culture you’re talking to before you communicate. The fact that somebody on the other side speaks English doesn’t mean he understands you. There is a difference.”

Mike Massaro, CEO of Flywire, refers to the company’s open culture that allows any employee to ask any question – even of the CEO – which is critical to keeping expectations clear. “There is truly no bad question to ask. There is no question I won’t answer to a Flymate. And that’s even happened during pretty challenging times,” says Mike.

The founder and CEO of Quantum Metric, Mario Ciabarra often gathers small, random teams together to listen to their thoughts and to highlight the company’s core values repeatedly. For Mario, “The vision of the company is so important to get everyone aligned, to get everyone behind that shared goal; that shared mission. I wish I understood it earlier… It kind of happens when you get past maybe 20, 40, 50 people, when you don’t spend your day with each employee.”

The process of setting and communicating expectations must be ongoing and repeated over and over. As the company expands and employees come and go, the need to communicate your vision and reinforce your values will continue.

The key elements of a distinctive company culture

There are five requirements in an excellent company culture:

  • Vision – a statement that guides its purpose.
  • Values – the core of its culture.
  • Practices – these should reflect the company’s values.
  • People – who either share or are willing to embrace your values.
  • Narrative – a culture that is built on the company’s unique story.

With these in place, any fast-growth company has a firm foundation – its culture – on which to grow.

Interested in learning more about how to create a strong company culture and improve your internal communications? In this article I have just highlighted tips from some of the 15 unicorn leaders featured in our book. Download your copy here and you will be able to learn the secrets to a successful culture from other top entrepreneurs like Felix Van De Maele (founder and CEO of Collibra), Adrien Nussenbaum (co-founder of Mirakl) and Charles McManus (CEO of ClearBank). You can also learn more about external communications and leadership from their experiences. And if you are into podcasts, then you can have a listen to the interviews with each one of these unicorn leaders on our ‘Without Borders’ podcast. You will find fresh content like our recent conversations with Pedro Bados, co-founder and CEO of Nexthink, Mariano Gomide de Faria, co-founder and co-CEO of VTEX, and Zeb Evans, founder and CEO of ClickUp.

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