3 Ways: Know You’re A Start-Up

Culture has to be one of the most popular topics, yet analytically hard to quantify. It thus gets relegated to the “soft stuff” because there is little evidence-based research supporting how to create a viable culture, what a good culture is, etc. And perhaps a high-performance culture is a little like the often quote about how to know if something is pornographic. It is self-evident to the observer and participant. Culture is a shared set of norms. David Caldwell, Professor of management at Santa Clara University talks about “culture as a shared understanding of assumptions and expectations among an organization’s members, and it is reflected in the policies, vision and goals of that organization.”

I’ve been spending a lot of time with some hot new start-ups giving them business advice on which market/position they want to hold. And in all those discussions with the extended teams, I’m seeing some very common patterns now of the ones I believe will make it to success. Whether in Silicon Valley, Boston or Montreal, start-ups do tend to fit into certain cultural norms. Besides hiring smart people (which is the table stakes, not the differentiation point), successful startups have 3 common archetypes that allow them to focus their attention, align against objectives and ultimately make that cross over to success.

The first archetype is that of Family.  As in we have a pact that transcends a specific transaction and our shared value of belonging and status is tied to the success of the family, not of the individual.  When we’re in the family, we don’t have to be nice-nice or super polite because frankly we just know each other that well. Instead we are frank with each other, cutting through any b.s. because the larger goal supersedes social protocol of strangers. The larger goal is less the defining paradigm than how the group functions and interoperates to accomplish that goal. A lot of x-googlers (pronounced zooglers) who are forming new companies use this family archetype <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/13/business/smallbusiness/13tree.html>.

The second archetype is one I’ll label Wealth but it comes in two distinct flavors. One is “We’ll be Rich”. The other is known as “We will Survive”, which is what happens to “we’ll be rich” when too much money is spent too fast without a viable revenue model. Regardless, the underlying motivation is financial reward. People get together to create something and see if their self-definition and identity can be shaped by wealth creation. Often the product or service, is not their passion but the process of making money is the underlying reason for one direction winning over another. . If you listen to the interviews of Mark Zuckenberg of FaceBook <http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/115/open_features-hacker-dropout-ceo.html>, he often reflects this archetype in how he’s growing FaceBook.

The final cultural archetype appears to be Deep Optimism. It is the most resonant form of archetype because it is entrepreneurs’ best way to “change the world” and in what ever way they can make customers lives better. People come together as “the best” and push each other to outshine not only the competitors but to outshine what they themselves have created in the past. Perry Chen of KickStarter <http://www.kickstarter.com/> very much embodies this kind of optimism: by allowing people to fund and follow creativity, he believes he can change the world.

These archetypes often break down past the stage of start-up (often right after $30-50M revenue rate is reached) because a new set of cultural norms starts to transcend the original ones of wealth, family and optimism.  Which is too bad. I think these cultural archetypes when melded together can be really powerful and sustaining to create winning outcomes.

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