As You Scale, Can Your Culture Keep Pace With Growth?

By Lisa Mikkelsen, Head of Global Human Capital

All startups experience growing pains, but a lot of entrepreneurs worry about growing so fast, they’ll lose their hardest-to-measure and most irreplaceable asset: their culture. They know they have to expand their team quickly, but suspect it could spoil the special sauce that brought them together in the first place.

This concern might be misplaced. New hires shouldn’t dilute your culture, but add to it. Each person you bring on board has a different way of thinking, working, and a new set of expectations — of course there will be some adjustments to the overall team. The real risk to your culture, however, is how you thoughtfully integrate people into your team.

When new people are having trouble integrating, there’s often a lot of confusion. Managers are surprised when deadlines or targets are missed. Team members don’t understand unspoken expectations or how decisions are made. New hires are heard saying “this isn’t what I signed up for.” Those are red flags that culture could be breaking down.

When you invest in your culture, however, intentionally bringing aboard new people, then your culture will grow along with your headcount. To do that, you have to find — and hold onto — the essence of your organization.

Culture Evolves, Your Values Don’t
The challenge of scaling culture is articulating what you, as founders, value, and finding ways to make those values salient at each new stage in your company’s growth. When companies get stuck, it’s because they confuse useful workplace behaviors for the valuesdriving those behaviors.

For example, you may have a weekly all-staff meeting. That works great at five employees and may even work with 50 employees, but it gets harder with 500 employees. What you really value may be open communication or maybe public recognition of strong teamwork.

Those are common values among startups — and they play out differently at various stages of growth. So does, for example, transparency. Copying everyone on emails may have worked in the early months or years, but it is not necessarily sustainable. The key is to think about how you appropriately scale transparency across all the various touch points, without slowing things down.

When you’re growing fast, take the time to think about why you care about aspects of your culture and how those aspects show up in day-to-day work scenarios. Identifying the core values behind your culture is the first step to planning for how those values will show up six months from now.

Tending Your Garden
Culture is the enactment of what you value. It’s how the work gets done. It’s not hardwired, but each of the behaviors that make up your culture — whether its ad hoc meetings in the hallways, Taco Tuesday, or people always copying their supervisors on emails — evolved for a reason. Even if those behaviors weren’t intentionally planned, they may inadvertently hold your team together. As you grow, your culture will continue to evolve, shaped by your values.

“Culture is a living, breathing, ever-changing entity,” as startup culture advisor and CEO coach Cecilia Landholt says. “When you treat it like that, you can be solving problems before they even happen.”

When you work in human resources, you come across lots of metaphors for culture, but my favorite really gets at this “living, breathing” aspect. It’s the metaphor of culture as a garden. Like a garden, you can put in a lot of work, planting seeds, fertilizing plots, and watering. There are also weeds and pests to watch out for, but there are factors you can’t control, like the weather. How your garden grows is organic.

This metaphor also shows that you want a variety of plants in your garden. They need different levels of light and shade. Some need to be watered more frequently than others. As your team grows, the variety of plants in your garden will too, and you’ll need new behaviors to engage new people.

At a company, the values start from the top, but not by putting up motivational posters. That does very little for your garden. It’s your consistent actions every day that keep it healthy.

Don’t Be Scared of Process
Some of the actions that help new people take root in your garden are “process” — activities like on-boarding, performance reviews, professional development, and total rewards. Startups are often hesitant to put a lot of “process” in place for fear of slowing down or becoming more bureaucratic. I’ve found the opposite happens.

When you don’t have thoughtful processes in place, you simply can’t scale headcount. You want new hires to start contributing as soon as possible, not just to your company’s work product, but also to the culture. If you acknowledge your core values up front and commit to giving people the resources they need, new hires will find their feet quicker. You’ll reduce confusion, simplify decision-making, and enable speed.

As leaders, you don’t need to do all this yourselves. You can empower your team to come up with creative solutions. Bottoms up ideas will foster accountability and also create a sense of ownership. At one of our portfolio companies, a junior employee noticed the leadership team included very few women. She approached the executive team and proposed a diversity and inclusion committee. Guess who became the committee chair?

Culture is a shared experience. Ideally, you build a culture where everybody plays a role. All strong cultures emerge not from a list of rules to follow, but rather from employee empowerment to act in ways that support your core values.

Flourish is an evergreen, early-stage venture fund investing globally in entrepreneurs whose innovations help people achieve financial health and prosperity. Spun out of Omidyar Network in 2019 with an existing portfolio of $200 million, Flourish received a new commitment of $300 million from Pam and Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay. Flourish invests in a number of themes in fintech, insurtech, regtech and other technologies, as well as supports nonprofit organizations, that empower people and help foster a fair, more inclusive economy. Flourish is managed by a global team with offices in Silicon Valley, Washington DC, London, and India. For more information visit or join our community through Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Medium.

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