January 12, 2022
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7 Minute

Cultivating internal culture authentically at your startup with insights from Virtual Gurus Founder, Bobbie Racette

Growth & Scaling

What happens when you build a startup? 


As a founder, you’re responsible for setting a strong mission and vision for your organization. You’ll need a group of trailblazers to rally among these shared values. At the same time, you’ll be balancing countless other priorities: finance, marketing, product... the list goes on. Most importantly, with a startup, you have a clean slate on which to build culture on. 


A common misconception some people have is that startup culture equates to a group of jeans-wearing, ping pong-playing employees. However, founders, such as Bobbie Racette, founder of Virtual Gurus, know that culture is more closely linked to surrounding themselves with motivated individuals who share their vision and values.


Back in early 2020, when the team at Virtual Gurus realized they needed to scale from five full-time staff to 30, Racette described, “it was a necessity to look for people who understood and were motivated by our social mission; people who sought us out for the difference they could make with us.”

What makes startup culture special

Corporate culture is limited. Employees have a defined job role with a competitive salary and work a consistent 9 to 5 schedule. The nature of work follows a predictable routine.

Startup culture is influential and constantly changing. Employees are expected to wear multiple hats, thus the nature of work is creative. Work hours fluctuate depending on the project and startup employees can expect to see some kind of alternative compensation, like equity.

For startups, having a strong internal culture saves time and enables people to go the extra mile without being asked to do so. This leads to an increased sense of ownership and accountability among employees that is crucial during the early stages of a startup. 

However, according to Racette, it’s important for founders to stay present and passionate at every stage of their startup. 

“Lots of startup C-suites stay in their ivory towers and keep themselves at a distance from the work they’re asking of their staff. Founders are the ones whose ideas employees are working to build,” says Racette. “I leave my office door open and I know all my staff personally. I hang out with them at games nights, take them to football games, eat with them at lunch - they know me and we’re all a team and a family.”

How to build an internal culture

So now that you understand the importance of internal culture, how do you build it?

Purpose-driven values

It’s helpful to know what values are important to your organization and even more important to define them. Use these values to guide your mission and vision. Your values should align with your actions and help you lead by example. 

For Racette, Virtual Gurus’ goal was, and always will be, “to provide work to marginalized folks.” When looking to add talent to her team, Racette kept in mind that she “wanted to build a place where people who don’t fit the nine-to-five mold would still be able to find fulfilling work and an accepting community workplace.”

Not sure what values you should be focusing on? Think back to previous work experiences you’ve had. What made them positive or negative experiences? What affected the outcome? Think about the related values that you can apply to your business. If your employees can relate and identify with your values, that’s even better.


Hire carefully

Hiring plays a large part in shaping startup culture. Team culture can be disturbed or destroyed if a bad hire is made. Selecting the right people means the people you’re bringing in don’t go against your values and fit in the culture. Note that this does not mean only hiring people who are similar to existing employees. 

“Inclusion and diversity are in our DNA, and it starts from the moment any new employee walks in the door,” says Racette. “We’re adventurous, creative and dedicated to learning and growth. We strongly believe in our North Star, which is our people. We work to foster a culture where staff can come as they are and encourage them to be themselves.”

As leaders, if we communicate our values through our actions, we will attract candidates that will be the right cultural fit. If you have a talent management team, make sure they know the values inside and out and know how to look for culture fit.

Care for your employees

Especially in the early days, working at startups can mean lower salaries and longer hours. Factoring in a global pandemic that forced many to work remotely only further emphasizes the importance of communicating with employees regularly and listening well. 

“The biggest struggle was, as many companies are now grappling with, maintaining the mental health of employees as the pandemic and subsequent isolation dragged on,” says Racette. “We focused on the project of scaling and growing - we were building a great team and a great network together; working towards something bigger and better helped focus the team on the future rather than the stagnant present of lockdowns.”

Make your employees feel valued and acknowledge the good work that’s been done by celebrating the small wins. Create an environment with trust and employees will thank you for it.

Trends

The startup world is in for several changes as trends emerge in the next decade. 

For one, the image of startups will become less associated with the stereotypical jean-wearing tech entrepreneur. This comes as more startups aren’t recognized as just cool side projects, but in fact, viable businesses that require a lot of hard work and people power. In a few years’ time, founders who’ve started a business for all the wrong reasons, and failed, will be removed from the playing field. 

As the world prepares to head back into post-COVID ways of working, startups will have to navigate the tricky waters of alternative arrangements like remote or hybrid work. Founders won’t be able to see what their employees are working on in a given moment, which further highlights the need for building trust.

Alternative working arrangements have further implications on internal culture, which will require extra measures to make employees feel connected. 

“We kept many of the activities we did in-office and moved them online - we play games in the break room and have Happy Hour on Fridays at the end of the month, which we were able to do over video,” says Racette. “It was important to keep that sense of normalcy as we adjusted to the new way of things. It kept us connected.” 

By prioritizing internal culture, Virtual Gurus found, “our culture was strong enough to transcend the office space and it stayed strong as we worked remotely. That may have something to do with the work we provide and an understanding of the nature of that work is crucial for the rest of us.”

Racette’s advice to founders? “Be yourself. It sounds cliche, but I mean it sincerely. If you are living the values you’re striving to create, you become an example for those around you. It helps really convince them that the goal is possible.”

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