In the past decade, the phrase “startup culture” has taken on a life of its own. When you hear it, you might think about casual office attire, collaborative brainstorm meetings, and maybe even a beer keg in the communal kitchen. But in this case, we’re not talking about that kind of startup culture. Instead, we’re talking about your startup’s specific culture — aka, the way your business aligns its internal operations with its core value system.

Having an authentic culture is crucial for the success and longevity of any business, particularly in today’s competitive market. For startups in particular, culture plays a significant role in shaping the overall brand identity, attracting talent, and building strong relationships with customers. As David Cummings, co-founder of Pardot put it, “Corporate culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage that is completely within the control of the entrepreneur.”

When employees genuinely believe in what they are doing, their enthusiasm becomes infectious, creating a positive work atmosphere —which, in turn, leads to higher employee engagement, productivity, and creativity, which are essential for innovation and growth.

In an era when consumers value transparency and authenticity, a genuine company culture isn’t just a good way to maintain internal operations — it’s also a powerful marketing tool. Customers are more likely to engage with and support a brand that demonstrates authenticity in its values, actions, and interactions. This kind of authenticity builds trust, loyalty, and a sense of community, turning customers into lifelong, diehard brand advocates.

What’s even better – an authentic culture provides startups with unique, compelling stories to share with their audience — inherently helping them stand out from competitors in even the most crowded marketplace. These stories can be woven into marketing campaigns, content creation, and social media strategies, all creating a real, lasting emotional connection with customers.

So, now that we understand why an authentic culture is key to a successful startup, here are some tips for how to create one of your own:

1. Dial In Your Internal Operations

The first crucial step to creating an authentic culture is to align your internal operations with your core values. Consider having a sit-down with key stakeholders to go over your value system and consider how your organization can embody these values from the inside out, including team structures, decision-making processes, communication styles, and opportunities for feedback and growth.

Take Adobe, for example. The software company is synonymous with creativity and accomplishment, and that reputation extends all the way to the core of its internal operations. For example, the organization challenges its employees with new tasks and encourages them to take risks in their work — leading to better employee engagement, and ultimately, better products.

2. Celebrate Wins, Big & Small

Cultivating a positive environment where your people actually feel valued can go a long way in retaining talent and ultimately thriving as an organization. Recognizing and rewarding achievements, both individual and collective, can be done through team outings, regular appreciation events, or even a simple shout-out in a company-wide email. By acknowledging the hard work and dedication of your team members, you can create a culture that values and supports their contributions — and encourages them to keep bringing in wins for the company.

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3. Build A Team That Lives Your Values

It’s okay to be picky during the talent acquisition process — in fact, any startup founder with a goal of long-term, sustainable success should be picky. Hiring individuals who align with your brand’s values, and actively demonstrate them in their work, is one of the easiest ways to build an authentic culture from the ground up. And once they’re on board, continually encourage employees to embody the brand, both in their interactions with customers and in their personal and professional lives. Make your brand’s values clear — hey, you may even consider displaying your values in your team’s headquarters as a daily reminder.

Online retailer Zappos absolutely crushes this aspect of company culture. Their hiring process includes a culture fit interview, and the company even offers employees $2,000 to quit after their first week if they’re not feeling the job. Talk about a commitment to the culture!

4. Support Your Staff With Collaboration & Empathy

Successful startups understand the importance of collaboration and empathy, and foster a supportive and inclusive culture by encouraging teamwork and open communication.

Organizations can do this by:

  • Creating cross-functional teams that encourage diverse perspectives and skillsets.
  • Encouraging mentorship and knowledge-sharing to empower team members to learn from one another.
  • Build in time for regular employee-manager one-on-ones as well as team huddles in order to promote frequent, open communication and help individuals use their voices.

5. Embrace Failure As A Learning Opportunity

Startups are scrappy, which means there’s often a lot of trial and error to get things just right. Risk-taking is basically built into a startup’s DNA, so why wouldn’t that extend to the workplace culture? If you’re asking your employees to give it their all, dream big, and take leaps, you have to be okay when things don’t pan out exactly how you were expecting. By embracing failures as valuable learning opportunities, startups can create a safe space where employees feel comfortable sharing their experiences, learning lessons, and continuing to innovate. This mindset shift will empower your team to be more resilient, adaptive, and creative in their problem-solving.

Creating an authentic startup culture definitely requires significant, intentional effort, but the rewards are immense. By aligning your internal operations with your core values and living your brand, your startup will foster an environment where creativity, collaboration, and passion thrive. Because authenticity isn’t just a buzzword — it’s a guiding principle that’s essential to your startup’s success.

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About the Author: Jenny Farias

Meet Jenny — the founder and brand-alchemist-at-large here at BxH. She's an award-winning marketer and speaker dedicated to helping founders turn their unicorn dreams into reality. When she's not crushing it at work, you can find her jet-setting across the globe, supporting fellow female founders (hello, gWen!), or hitting up Charlotte's vibrant entrepreneurial scene with her boyfriend, Ben (#BenTheGem). Wherever she goes, Jenny brings her infectious energy and can-do attitude to the table — preferably alongside a spicy margarita.

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