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Should Startups Worry about Their Company Culture?

Does your startup company culture really matter? It sure mattered to Zappos founder Tony Hsieh, as we noted last week, who describes in an article in Inc, the battles he waged with investors who dismissed his efforts to cultivate a supportive, worker-friendly environment at the company. The importance of preserving that company culture, Hsieh suggests, led in part to his decision to sell his company to Amazon.

Company Culture: A “Meaningless Platitude”?

A startup has to have a lot of things in place: a strong team, a good product, and a market interested in it. Is the company culture another thing that startups need to have situated in order to succeed? Or is it, as Dan Shapiro writes in a provocatively titled post “a meaningless platitude”?

Shapiro points out that the official statements about the company culture of GE, Wells Fargo, and Zillow, for example, all sound remarkably similar. And even though this sort of statement might be “put together after much employee feedback and deliberation, and carefully designed to capture the key things that make your company great. It’s also a load of well-mixed fertilizer.”

Shapiro contends that a company culture is what makes your company different, not necessarily what makes it great. In the case of the Zappos company culture, Hsieh is pretty adamant that this is what makes the online shoe store great. He writes that “what distinguished us from our competitors was that we’d put our company culture above all else. We’d bet that by being good to our employees – for instance, by paying for 100 percent of health care premiums, spending heavily on personal development, and giving customer service reps more freedom than at a typical call center – we would be able to offer better service than our competitors. “

What Really Makes a Company Culture?

Arguably, developing a positive community culture requires more than just the commitment to health care and professional development. And as Shapiro argues that despite frequent invocation of catchphrases like “hire the best, teamwork, ethics,'” that “real” company culture is comprised of four things:

1. Polarizing decisions

2. Excesses

3. Quirks

4. Dysfunctions

It’s how startups handle difficult decisions, how they foster certain quirks or excesses, and how they develop dysfunctional responses to various circumstances that will truly define the company culture.

Despite the provocative title “Your Company Culture is a Meaningless Platitude,” I don’t think Shapiro is suggesting that the culture itself is meaningless. Rather, the buzzwords are irrelevant if you don’t pay attention to the things that actually make your startup a great – or horrid – place to work.

Of course, this begs the question: what do you think makes up a good startup company culture?

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