What defines great company culture? It’s not an easy question to answer. Even defining ‘culture’ has puzzled philosophers and sociologists for hundreds of years.
One of the reasons why it’s so hard to define culture is because culture changes all the time. Company culture is the perfect example of that.
The Industrial Revolution was marked by brutal work conditions that businesses realised they had to eradicate. Then, the overly hierarchical office work culture of the early 1900s gave way to today's more egalitarian model.
The 1970s introduced the concept of environmental, social and governance (ESG), placing even greater emphasis on business culture, which has slowly become a marker for success.
And here we are today. The 2020s marks an era where business culture is more innovative than ever. But also hard to get right.
In this article, we'll share how six tech startups are leading the way with their company culture. But first...
What is great company culture?
Excellent company culture takes many forms, but the result is often the same - employees that bond well with their roles, responsibilities and position within an evolving team.
Strong company culture creates trust, transparency, community, respect and positivity that reverberates through personal lives as well as business tasks and processes.
Here's how six top tech companies use different cultural strategies to reach the same destination.
How six tech startups developed positive work cultures
The virtual events company Hopin was founded in 2019 as a 100% remote team. Fast forward to 2021, and the company is now valued at $7.75 billion after raising $450 in funding. The team itself has grown from 20 employees to over 500 spread across 44 countries.
Hopin always paid attention to its organisational culture. As a remote team, tackling loneliness and enhancing inclusiveness was always a top priority. In addition, networking team members across borders would create a coherent workforce despite the physical distance.
Today, Hopin’s culture is managed by their dedicated Vibe Team, a group of eight people whose job is to engage employees with events, talks, and other cultural events.
The Vibe Team works closely with their Internal Comms team, who handles the flow of information through the business. Together, the Vibe Team and Comms Team network Hopin’s all-remote team, regardless of where people live and their timezone.
Pleo is well-aware of a problem many businesses face today: finding and retaining top talent.
The gap in job vacancies and supply is widening, and more jobs are going unfilled. For example, some 49% of small businesses can’t fill jobs in the USA, and there have never been so many unfilled jobs in the UK.
Offering employees innovative benefits is one way for businesses can cut through the noise and attract the best talent. Learn how an employee incentive like a share scheme can also be used to attract and retain talent.
Pleo scores a very strong 4.4 on Glassdoor for company culture and has some innovative tricks up its sleeves for keeping employees happy, such as its “Flex Benefits” package, which operates through the Pleo card, a business card designed specifically for expenses.
And with that:
- Each employee gets 2,500 EUR of flex benefits or the equivalent in their local currency.
- The Pleo card gives Pleo some control over what employees use their Flex Benefits for, such as holidays, art and entertainment and even charity donations.
- Also, Flex Benefits also work anywhere in the world, which is perfect for their remote working culture.
This simple but effective benefits package utilises and markets Pleo’s own product while providing something unique for employees.
While Dropbox can hardly be considered a startup anymore, they’ve maintained a strong 4.3 rating on Glassdoor and rank consistently high in employee satisfaction.
In 2011, Dropbox announced their influential ‘Annual Hack Week’, a full 7 days for Dropbox employees to explore new activities across the business’s 13 global offices.
The Hack Week has been copied by many aspiring startups, including Spotify, which hosts its own event under the same name.
Other quirks like the Gratitude Post - an internal postal service for employees to send hand-written messages - set Dropbox apart from others.
Dropbox’s work culture blog is a sight to behold too, and their Life Inside Dropbox blog contains many interesting insights into what it’s like to work at what's now a global tech firm.
4. Gravity Payments
Gravity hit the headlines in 2015 when Founder Dan Price had an epiphanic moment among the misty Cascade mountains near Seattle.
After speaking to his close friend about her wage struggle, Price made the headline-grabbing decision to introduce a $70,000 minimum wage for his 120 staff. He placed himself on the $70,000 minimum wage, taking a $1m pay cut in the process.
The BBC followed up the story in 2020, highlighting the many ways in which Price’s gamble paid off. For example, more of his employees are now homeowners and parents than they were before.
Gravity does have a more conventional company culture, which they call a ‘culture of candour’. They emphasise soft skills and aren’t afraid of turning down those with the best skills and accolades in favour of those with the best cultural fit.
Feedback and praise are also central to Gravity’s culture, which they call ‘direct communication’. But Gravity isn’t alone in its open-natured culture, which brings us to our next startup.
Buffer’s internal and external culture is defined by their ‘extreme transparency’, which is what they believe is one of the keys to their success. In fact, in their list of values, transparency is number one.
Buffer’s transparency initiative is so extreme that even their Trello board is open for public viewing. They also make the following available to the public:
- Their revenue
- Data on the diversity of their workforce
- Open salary data and salary calculators
- How they share profits
- How much they spend on perks & benefits
- And much more via their Open Culture Blog
Buffer’s open culture extends to their internal team workings too. For example, internal comms between specific teams have to be shared with everyone in that team to keep everyone on the same page.
With an average annual run rate their annual recurring revenue from subscriptions) of around $18m, Buffer clearly isn’t hurting themselves by practising this open culture.
Finding success in the crowded project management software space is an accomplishment in its own right. With clients like NASA, Netflix and Nike, ProofHub has certainly succeeded in innovating this crowded SaaS market.
ProofHub’s project management and collaboration tools are designed to enhance work culture in remote teams. Built-in collaboration tools combine with a feature-packed but friendly interface, chat functions, file proofing and more.
ProofHub made Forbes’ List of America's Best Employers 2021, which they largely attribute to their values-first culture.
Among ProofHub’s culture strategies is its focus on recognition and feedback, which they try to incorporate into everyday activities.
For example, they use the ProofHub platform to deliver feedback, praise and recognition through the Announcements feature, a popup that appears on a user’s profile.
- Pleo empowers employees with rewards delivered through its platform.
- Dropbox provides employees with opportunities to grow and explore.
- Gravity and Buffer both took a radical route to establish their company culture, which paid off.
- Proofhub and Hopin strengthened their remote teams with strategies supported by their internal functions.
So, what do these six companies have in common? They don't imitate, they innovate.
Company culture is cultivated and grown - it can’t be forced upon people. Inviting participation in genuinely useful, but the keyword is genuine. Superficial efforts to create company culture don’t cut the mustard.
Instead, startups should look to build strategies that have a real impact on their employees. There's no off-the-shelf solution or one-size-fits-all for startups, every business has to find its own way.