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On Tuesday, December 3rd our VP of Sales and Marketing, Michael Loiacono gave a talk at a morning session at Reset. He spoke about his experiences as a frequent early-stage employee at startups, and how to build a strong culture from the ground up. Here are some key takeaways from the discussion.

Culture as a Differentiator

It seems like recently many people are conflating company culture with office perks, such as ping pong tables, beer on tap, and informal dress codes. But culture goes much deeper than that. Company culture is woven into the fabric of the company and spills over into every aspect of the employee experience. True culture is the people who make up the company, how those people interact with each other, how the company operates when nobody is looking, and the skill sets and mindsets of the people who work there.

Today, when competition for talent is fierce, culture is becoming a differentiator and a strategic advantage. A strong culture transcends problems. It forms the foundation of success for a company. A company could have a killer product, but be stifled by a poor culture and team. The marketplace can be unpredictable, but culture is the one thing that can be controlled and used to the company’s advantage.

Skills Needed to Succeed at a Startup

Working at a startup requires a specific skill set and mindset. Here are some of the key skills needed to succeed at a startup:

  • Adaptability. Things change all the time, especially in a startup. By definition, growth means change. Things can move very quickly, and you need people that are comfortable with the pace. Having talent or expertise is not always adequate. There can be very talented people who simply aren’t equipped to thrive without a well defined process, or who take too long to adjust to a new operating rhythm. In order to truly succeed in a startup, employees need to be able to roll with the punches and adapt often.
  • Solutions-oriented attitude and open-mindedness. In a startup, there is no shortage of issues to solve. Because of this, you need people who are dedicated to finding a resolution. This does not necessarily mean that they need to find a solution by themselves, but they must be willing to seeking solutions and hearing others’ ideas for solutions. Good employees don’t approach issues with all the reasons why things won’t work. They have an optimistic and open-minded perspective on trying new solutions. 
  • Openness to taking risks. There is no great reward without risk. And nobody really got ahead by only doing the safe things. The company culture should be one that encourages employees to take risks and gives them time to blossom. At the same time, employees need to feel assured that it is ok to fail. Failure is not really a failure, but an opportunity to learn and adjust. Employees need to be able to approach risk-taking with that mindset. 
  • Persistence and resolve. In a startup, it is likely for employees to experience more losses than wins in a given day. That’s just the name of the game. Because of this, startup employees need to be able to bounce back. They need to be persistent in moving past losses and pushing for future wins. This is best driven by a true passion for the problem being solved.
  • Appreciation and empathy. When employees do not feel appreciated, their morale drops quickly. Showing recognition is the easiest and cheapest way to build up that morale. And recognition serves multiple purposes. It makes the employee being recognized feel good. It crystallizes what really matters by sending a signal to everyone else in the company on how to behave and act every day. Finally, recognizing employees makes them more likely to recognize others, creating a positive feedback loop.
  • Good ol’ hard work. Put simply, being willing to put in the work is crucial. Employees that are brilliant and talented are great, but if they’re not willing to work hard, what’s the point? Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.