How Small Businesses Can Maintain a Start-up Culture

The technology industry is saturated with start-up businesses and young entrepreneurs trying to make their mark. A challenge most of these companies will face is growing their operations, whilst maintaining the team dynamic that the company was founded upon. Paying attention to your culture from the get-go will define your business model and how it matures over time. Therefore, it’s important to have a clear understanding of your business identity, relationships, and growth strategy.

As your business grows it will become increasingly difficult to maintain that start-up mentality because you simply cannot have full control over everything and everyone within the company. Employees are always seeking a better work experience and a better work/ life balance, and so in a competitive market, it’s vital to maintain a positive culture in order to compete with like-minded organisations. By preserving that start-up ethos, such as open communication and an ‘all for one’ team spirit, larger companies can retain that small business feel, keeping employees and customers happy.

Sukh Ryatt, Managing Director of intranet software provider, OAK, recognises the struggles of business development, having experienced rapid growth after the relaunch of their product. As a business, OAK was challenged to not only reinvent their service to embrace new cloud technology, but to revision the entire business dynamic. Here, Sukh shares with Omnilt the three unwritten rules that they adopted for the company as it scaled:

Rule One: Employ the right people

Always hire based on ‘fit’ for the company. Whilst employees need to have the right academic ability and technical skills, these things can be taught. Personality cannot. Over the years, we have had some amazing candidates interview at OAK, who we know would be brilliantly productive and would excel in the job role blindfolded, but we turned them down as we didn’t think they’d thrive in our work environment.

Diluting your culture in favour of technical ability will have a negative impact on it, and it will become much more of a challenge to maintain the foundations that the company was built on. It’s important to note that this is not discrimination! It is ensuring that we, as an employer, are being fair to both our existing team and the prospective candidate. Arguably the most important part of maintaining that start-up culture is ensuring that all staff are happy in their job role and in the workplace. Having a cohesive team ensures that all our employees collaborate effectively and efficiently and in turn, this has a positive effect on our staff retention rates.

Rule Two: Get new recruits involved fast

Being the new guy is always tough. As an employer, it is your responsibility to ensure that new recruits feel comfortable and involved amongst more established team members. At Oak, we request that all new starters fill in an ‘Ice Breaker’ profile, to let everyone know what they’re about. This includes tonnes of personal facts, such as their childhood nicknames, favourite take-away, crisp flavour of choice, obscure fears and phobias, what’s on their bucket list, what they get up to in the spare time, and what they’d do if they won the lottery.

This allows them to settle in quickly, sets the scene for who we are as a company, and encourages engagement with other team members. If they aren’t up for filling in the Ice Breaker, then we probably haven’t done a good job with rule one!

Rule Three: ‘We’re all in this together’

Just like in my favourite film, High School Musical, you should never forget that in business ‘We’re all in it together’. This ‘all for one and one for all’ mentality is always present in small businesses, but it can deteriorate with growth and maturity. To maintain this approach, ensure that every single member of staff feels important and valued. In our office, all senior team members sit in the centre of the action, alongside their teams. This ensures that they remain open and accessible, as it was when our company was in its infancy.

Visitors in our office, often comment that it’s difficult to distinguish senior staff and team leads, and we pride ourselves on this. We have maintained this ethos of being ‘in it together’ from the start, and its remained at the forefront of our business operations. As CEO, I love having my desk positioned next to the coffee machine, because no matter how hectic things get, I always have the opportunity to have informal chats with colleagues. Perhaps even more importantly, positioning myself in the offices ‘social hotspot’ means that I am always accessible to everyone and we can discuss business updates without having to wait for formal processes that can delay operations.

Overall, when it comes to culture, remember that it derives from people – not from an outlining document! The attraction to small business is that everyone knows everyone and these relationships form an inherent closeness, as we are all working towards a common goal. Culture cannot be manufactured. As an organisation scales, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain those relationships that the business thrived on in the beginning. It can be challenging to integrate new faces in with the original team, but by embracing new staff as old, it is possible to form strong bonds that will help to preserve that sought-after small business culture.

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