How to create a strong, responsible culture for your startup


Company culture is one of the key factors to winning investment as well as effective decision-making and growth, says responsible innovation coach Sam Brown.

Sam Brown is a responsible innovation coach and Co-founder of Consequential, a community interest company that works with technology startups and investors.

Eagle Labs asked for her insight on how businesses can create a responsible culture that could help attract investment and increase success and sustainability.

What does responsibility mean when it comes to startups and their company culture?

Responsibility really comes down to three approaches to innovation; being open, and accountable for your intent, being aware of the potential consequences of your business decisions and taking steps to address them, and being inclusive and thoughtful about your stakeholders and who you involve in the innovation process.

And what about sustainability?

In a business context, sustainability can refer to your ability to build something that lasts – something bigger than yourself that can sustain itself. This requires really paying attention to the interconnectedness between your business, its operations and your product. What are the implications for profit, people, and planet, and how are you balancing them?

How important is culture to a startup’s success?

Culture is vital when scaling and achieving what you envision because it shows up in decision-making. The culture of your business will determine how decisions are made, what the decision making process is, and who gets to have input. It will determine how open and accountable the process is, what stakeholder impacts are considered, and if longer term consequences are considered. These decisions represent how relevant and how resilient your product and your business will be. There's nothing more fundamentally important than culture when building a business.

Is culture important to establish at the beginning of a startup’s life?

Absolutely. Intentional culture building should be top of the agenda in early stage businesses because every decision you make is critical to survival - and is actually a building block that, over time, is going to set the culture, the decision-making processes and ethical direction of your business. Every time a founder makes a decision, they're modelling a decision-making process and creating a culture that others will follow.

This matters because when you're scaling you'll be relying on other people within your business to make decisions – and you have to hope they're going to make those decisions based on the values you want your business to have. The way to do that is to knowingly model those values right from the beginning.

What is the consumer’s view of sustainability and responsibility?

There have been many surveys which show that consumers’ expectations of business have changed – in particular around the technology that's dictating their daily lives.

A big part of this is tied to feelings of trust, where consumers want to know that their best interests have been considered. And that’s not always evident.

Many emerging technologies in particular pose large moral questions for society, and people don’t feel they’ve had a say. That disconnect is a storm brewing for distrust in the technology sector, which impacts everyone who operates in it.

There’s less fascination with the shiny and new, and more open scepticism about the potential harm. The right business values and culture, communicated properly, can help to address some of that distrust.

How important is a responsible culture for investors?

Now, more than ever, investors have a vested interest in the governance of the businesses they invest in. A failure of culture can lead to catastrophic mistakes that could prevent a startup from reaching IPO and damage the reputation of the investor.

Such mistakes can happen when a tech business doesn’t appear to be acting in the best interest of users, isn’t clear about the intent or values of the business, or has a culture that gets in its own way.

Investors therefore want to figure out how to build in governance structures and a feedback mechanism to ensure that decision-making within a business is aligned with the stated mission of that business.

It sounds like culture dictates the decision-making process, and vice versa.

That’s right. Every time a leader is confronted with a decision, they need to pause and consider how they’re making that decision. Is the process of decision-making visible to everyone else in the organization, so they can repeat it?

Each decision tells everyone else in the company what's important to you. By being open with the factors you weigh and how you reach a decision, you’re modelling an approach that everyone else will be able to repeat down the line. You need to be aware at all times of what you’re signalling to the people in your business.

And how can founders decide what should form their startup’s culture?

Start with what values are important to your business. Then be intentional with designing and modelling your own decision-making process to reflect those values. If you value collaboration, every decision you make you should be modelling a collaborative decision-making process. It’s a massive undertaking because as a leader, you're going to be faced with 100 decisions a day. To be intentional about how you're making every single decision is incredibly hard – but that’s how you build a culture and a company that's going to last. It will mean you need to be in the room less and less over time, and that your culture is going to be as advertised.

How else do you build culture?

A consideration of the various stakeholders involved in the business is really important. First and foremost that involves the people you hire and work with. Who you choose to join the business, and the process that lies behind those choices, is also going to introduce new values and new approaches and you need to be thinking about that as much as the skills they bring to the table.

How are you going to work with them to continue to model and build the culture you want? The right team is a huge factor in success and in receiving investment, and you need to be building one that’s aligned not only with your vision but with how you want to achieve that vision.

Done right, this will reinforce your culture and help improve its responsibility and sustainability - and therefore its value to investors.

It feels like a daunting challenge for founders

Intentionally creating a culture through your decision-making can be an incredibly hard thing to do. Right now there is so much uncertainty and leaders can't control the way the world is constantly changing around them. But what they can control is how they react to it, and how they make decisions in response to it – and in that way they can sustainably build the culture they want their business to have.

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