How to Avoid Turning Your Startup into a Dysfunctional Family

How to Avoid Turning Your Startup into a Dysfunctional FamilyA couple of weeks ago I was contacted by a journalist from Wall Street Journal. We had a great conversation about the current labor market, hiring challenges, and how to build the right company culture. He ended up taking the article in another direction, but now I’m happy to be able to finally share what I discussed with him here.

As some of you may recall, I am Director of Operations at a company in Cambridge, MA called Pixability. There are nine of us now and we are planning to hire three more before the year ends. We are growing rapidly and it is important to us not to turn into a dysfunctional “family”. This is the most crucial time in the growth of our company, because the culture we set now will make or break us. If culture building wasn’t hard enough of a task, we also have to be work hard at retaining our early employees, because those folks will be the evangelizers of it all to the new employees.

So how do we keep everyone running on all 12 cylinders, energized, and always feeling their importance to the team is not just BS preached to them?

There are three key areas we think help:

1. Constant momentum

  • Our company culture is such that you are expected to learn and develop every day. Sometimes learning comes from mistakes and we embrace that. No one gets punished for making a mistake – we just build systems to prevent them in the future.
  • We go out of our way to make sure no one sets himself or herself up for failure. If a project is considered too big, we make sure it is broken up into manageable pieces, so we can see the progress and any setbacks are minimal. We use the Agile Scrum methodology to ensure this.
  • To prevent burnout, we make sure people take days off. We are even working on experimenting with a 2+2 vacation policy: you get 2 weeks of vacation, but if you take your 2 weeks continuously instead of breaking up the days, you’ll get 2 more weeks you can use later that year (and break up, as needed).

2. Making everyone’s voice and work really count

  • First and foremost – no primadonnas, superstars, rockstars, or ninjas. Everyone works to raise the bar of the entire team.
  • Everyone is visible in our organization through short daily morning “huddles” and bi-weekly “sprints”. No matter how junior you are, we want to hear how you want to improve the company.

3. Addressing concerns immediately

  • We strive to resolve every considerable concern, disagreement or conflict immediately. We don’t let things “simmer”.
  • Our CEO is extremely busy and runs on a 24X7 schedule, but she will always pick up a call or text message from an employee if there are issues.

Lastly, it is the make up of the team that helps in retention. The more your company looks like the United Nations (we have employees from 5 countries on our small team), the more people will stick around. Diversity creates a true family feeling and fosters an environment of real intellectual growth. Pixability is not the first company I am in where we practice this philosophy. I know it works.

Photo credit: Jack Lyons

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