Surviving as a startup is no easy feat. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about half of small businesses fail in the first four years. But survival is only part of the challenge. The other part is maintaining all of your dynamic energy and creativity–the keys that defined your startup and saw it through those tough early days. The trick is to grow your company in a way that doesn’t turn it into something unrecognizable. Here are some things to keep in mind.
Decide what in your company culture is essential. When people think of your startup, what images do you want them to hold in their minds?
What is it that you want to be known for?
Realize that some of the more freewheeling aspects of a startup may need to go. But don’t be hostile to professionalizing the workplace.
Compliance with workplace safety standards; limits on hours and managing break periods; legal implications of firing an employee; and tax consequences that come with beefing up your workforce–you may chafe at formality and regulations, but OSHA or fair labor violations are not things to build your reputation on. They aren’t a company culture to maintain over the long haul. As you address each of those, you’re protecting the company. And doing so is likely to help you retain staff and attract investors.
Google famously asked prospective employees impossible or wacky questions (though they’ve largely given up on that practice). What were they trying to do? They realized that even the greatest company culture in the world wasn’t going to turn a lackluster, dull employee into a wonderful addition to the team. (By the same token, a terrific employee can be miserable in the wrong environment.)
The key, then, was to find employees who already had the qualities and personality that matched the company’s culture and core values.
Previously, you or one of your partners could personally interview every new hire, but that’s no longer possible. What to do?
For starters, you’re going to want to become familiar with employment law, by talking to a lawyer or hiring a dedicated HR professional. You’ll need to develop recruitment initiatives (from job fairs to interview questions) to find employees who are great fits for your company.
For employees in place, you’ll want to retain them. One way to do that is to have a clear handbook of workplace policies and practices.
And recognize that you’ll teach and support culture–what the company values–by your decisions on how to reward employees (e.g., through promotions, benefit packages, bonuses, stock options and more).
While acquiring or merging with another company can be a wonderful opportunity, it can wreak havoc on your culture if you’re unprepared.
M&A law is a complicated beast, no matter the size of the companies involved. (Please see our previous post on business acquisitions.) So bring on a lawyer to handle the negotiations. And as you consider financial terms, let your lawyer know what elements of your culture—from the business’s physical environment to other workplace policies—you want to survive.
Beyond that, prepare employees for the changes ahead. Let them know why the deal is in the best interest of the company, while also assuring them that the cultural core isn’t going to change.
As your company expands, so will potential dangers–from a defective product to a worker injured on the job or a breach-of-contract dispute. A company stung a few times may decide to just lock down the culture in favor of what appears to be a safer, if blander, environment.
That’s why it’s better to bring in a lawyer as early as possible: A dedicated lawyer steeped in growth-stage company experience can help you prevent problems. A good startup lawyer will protect the innovation you’ve shown so far.
And by preventing legal problems, you ultimately give yourself more time and resources to do what you love to do: Develop your products and grow the company.
You and your team should be proud of what you have accomplished. As you continue to expand, don’t neglect the culture you’ve created.