Early Stage Founder Fundamentals: Culture

You have a culture, ensure it’s explicitly defined

Anyone that has met me knows I am passionate about culture. In one of my previous roles I led a team of people who were tasked to define, identify and correct company culture. Anytime I am searching for a role, culture is the FIRST thing I consider.

I’d love to encourage founders to be even more passionate about culture.

First, let us talk about what we mean by ‘culture’ in a start-up setting. I have seen many descriptions but my favourite is:

Your company culture is a combination of your shared vision, and the way your internal team and the organisation acts. Typically, in a start-up situation, the culture is heavily influenced by the founders of the company.

Culture is a combination of your purpose as an organisation, what you value, how you interact and who you hire.

It should also be said, whether you explicitly define it or not, you do have a culture. Not explicitly defining it doesn’t mean you don’t have one, it just means you have one that you have no control over.

So, what can you do to help build and retain a great culture? And why is it so important?

1. Your culture is a living thing, document it and regularly evaluate and modify it to fit your stage:

As a founder, ensure that you: i) document your culture ii) regularly evaluate that culture and iii) modify your culture by the stage you are in. It is okay to change. It is encouraged that you change.

Some things to consider:

  • What is the Purpose of your company.
  • The values you want to live by and what they mean; saying “Trust” is good, but going further and saying “Trust to us means knowing that the person next to you is thinking of the best outcome for the company, and is doing it in the best way to benefit everyone. We do not second guess each other. You are the expert in your space”.
  • Guiding principles could be some interesting or fun anecdotes that guide your decision making e.g. customer focus might state that “we only build what adds value to our customers”.
  • Lastly, take some time to think about what your key roles are and what are some of their key responsibilities. Meaning, what does the CEO do that the CPO or COO doesnt i.e which decision do they own. A great exercise at the start would also be, what skills would you like them to have.

Drop me an email if you’d like a copy of the template.



2. Recruit and hire VERY carefully

Choose the first 10 employees very carefully, as they determine the next 100

Yevgeniy Brikman, Gruntwork

Please, I beg of you, do not hire out of pressure, take your time and hire someone who buys into your vision, someone who understands the pressures of a start up and someone that compliments your skill. Having done HR, it is much easier to stretch yourselves for 2 more months than the trouble of needing to fire someone. For everyone involved.

3. Lead by example

Founders, in a company of 2 people, you define the culture. Writing down your values and company culture does not only act as a guide for hiring, it acts as a tool to hold you accountable.

If people join the organisation and find you rewarding theft or corruption (…okay these are extreme examples), but if you reward a lack of work-life balance, if you never say thank you or recognise employees, or if you build features based on guesswork, then you end up with an organisation that does that. Now imagine all that unpleasant behaviour with $20m in the bank from investors. Trust me when I say it’s a circus and you will have very high turnover of great talent.


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4. Recognise and reward employees; Deliberately

Learn to recognise your employees. Celebrate small wins, even when it’s just you. Learning to do this as founders allows you to do this for your team. And when I say recognise and reward, please don’t take it to mean that a pat on the back and a pool table translates to a good day’s wage.

I will give you some ideas…just in case; Increase salaries, start an employee stock ownership plan (ESPOP), 4 day work weeks, education stipends, drinks, promotions, listening to your team…

One story that leaves me particularly tickled is one of IBMs more famous transformation periods. At IBM in the 1970s and 80s – they prided themselves on having a culture of innovation and believed they were invulnerable due to the great people there.

One quote I have read is “The bosses like to talk about a special kind of IBM employee, the wild ducks, free spirits who challenged orthodox views and were ready to think the unthinkable in the quest for new and better products.

The only problem was, this culture no longer existed. Years of stifling bureaucracy at the middle levels of the company had crushed the independent spirits under a mountain of regulation and red tape. Conformity was the order of the day, and those who questioned the rules were forced out. “What happened to the wild ducks?” ran the question in IBM. “They all got shot.”

In closing, start-up culture in the tech ecosystem has recently seen some attention and has made this important to management and founders across the continent.

…people are looking for ways to improve the overall experience at work and some are even champions of seamlessly integrating work into their life. People don’t have absolute power to demand a higher salary or more vacation days but they do have high expectations. They’re interested in opportunities to connect with others who will help achieve their goals and find greater satisfaction in the process. How do we begin to reach these goals? By defining our start-up culture, we can commit to better supporting the work itself, improve operations, make a more valuable contribution, and gain greater personal satisfaction

By Christine Namara

Venture Partner at The Baobab Network


The Baobab Network Accelerator Applications Banner


Early Stage Founder Fundamentals: Culture

You have a culture, ensure it’s explicitly defined

Anyone that has met me knows I am passionate about culture. In one of my previous roles I led a team of people who were tasked to define, identify and correct company culture. Anytime I am searching for a role, culture is the FIRST thing I consider.

I’d love to encourage founders to be even more passionate about culture.

First, let us talk about what we mean by ‘culture’ in a start-up setting. I have seen many descriptions but my favourite is:

Your company culture is a combination of your shared vision, and the way your internal team and the organisation acts. Typically, in a start-up situation, the culture is heavily influenced by the founders of the company.

Culture is a combination of your purpose as an organisation, what you value, how you interact and who you hire.

It should also be said, whether you explicitly define it or not, you do have a culture. Not explicitly defining it doesn’t mean you don’t have one, it just means you have one that you have no control over.

So, what can you do to help build and retain a great culture? And why is it so important?

1. Your culture is a living thing, document it and regularly evaluate and modify it to fit your stage:

As a founder, ensure that you: i) document your culture ii) regularly evaluate that culture and iii) modify your culture by the stage you are in. It is okay to change. It is encouraged that you change.

Some things to consider:

  • What is the Purpose of your company.
  • The values you want to live by and what they mean; saying “Trust” is good, but going further and saying “Trust to us means knowing that the person next to you is thinking of the best outcome for the company, and is doing it in the best way to benefit everyone. We do not second guess each other. You are the expert in your space”.
  • Guiding principles could be some interesting or fun anecdotes that guide your decision making e.g. customer focus might state that “we only build what adds value to our customers”.
  • Lastly, take some time to think about what your key roles are and what are some of their key responsibilities. Meaning, what does the CEO do that the CPO or COO doesnt i.e which decision do they own. A great exercise at the start would also be, what skills would you like them to have.

Drop me an email if you’d like a copy of the template.



2. Recruit and hire VERY carefully

Choose the first 10 employees very carefully, as they determine the next 100

Yevgeniy Brikman, Gruntwork

Please, I beg of you, do not hire out of pressure, take your time and hire someone who buys into your vision, someone who understands the pressures of a start up and someone that compliments your skill. Having done HR, it is much easier to stretch yourselves for 2 more months than the trouble of needing to fire someone. For everyone involved.

3. Lead by example

Founders, in a company of 2 people, you define the culture. Writing down your values and company culture does not only act as a guide for hiring, it acts as a tool to hold you accountable.

If people join the organisation and find you rewarding theft or corruption (…okay these are extreme examples), but if you reward a lack of work-life balance, if you never say thank you or recognise employees, or if you build features based on guesswork, then you end up with an organisation that does that. Now imagine all that unpleasant behaviour with $20m in the bank from investors. Trust me when I say it’s a circus and you will have very high turnover of great talent.


The Baobab Network Accelerator Application Banner


4. Recognise and reward employees; Deliberately

Learn to recognise your employees. Celebrate small wins, even when it’s just you. Learning to do this as founders allows you to do this for your team. And when I say recognise and reward, please don’t take it to mean that a pat on the back and a pool table translates to a good day’s wage.

I will give you some ideas…just in case; Increase salaries, start an employee stock ownership plan (ESPOP), 4 day work weeks, education stipends, drinks, promotions, listening to your team…

One story that leaves me particularly tickled is one of IBMs more famous transformation periods. At IBM in the 1970s and 80s – they prided themselves on having a culture of innovation and believed they were invulnerable due to the great people there.

One quote I have read is “The bosses like to talk about a special kind of IBM employee, the wild ducks, free spirits who challenged orthodox views and were ready to think the unthinkable in the quest for new and better products.

The only problem was, this culture no longer existed. Years of stifling bureaucracy at the middle levels of the company had crushed the independent spirits under a mountain of regulation and red tape. Conformity was the order of the day, and those who questioned the rules were forced out. “What happened to the wild ducks?” ran the question in IBM. “They all got shot.”

In closing, start-up culture in the tech ecosystem has recently seen some attention and has made this important to management and founders across the continent.

…people are looking for ways to improve the overall experience at work and some are even champions of seamlessly integrating work into their life. People don’t have absolute power to demand a higher salary or more vacation days but they do have high expectations. They’re interested in opportunities to connect with others who will help achieve their goals and find greater satisfaction in the process. How do we begin to reach these goals? By defining our start-up culture, we can commit to better supporting the work itself, improve operations, make a more valuable contribution, and gain greater personal satisfaction

By Christine Namara

Venture Partner at The Baobab Network


The Baobab Network Accelerator Applications Banner