Culture First or Find Customers First

Recently there was a local debate around the importance of corporate culture in the earliest days of seed stage startups. From the debate, there was contention about whether or not a focus on culture at the start was important before the business had many employees and was viable. Put another way, should you spend any time on culture when it could be spent acquiring customers?

My answer: absolutely, culture matters from the beginning. Culture is more than just the founders and people hired. Yes, the people are the most important part, but culture is reflected in the core values, processes, and the way the company chooses to act. The same exact team with different core values, assuming the values are truly cared about, will act differently because the priorities are different.

The culture won’t last long if the startup goes out of business but it also won’t be nearly as fun if things are successful and the culture isn’t strong and cohesive. Culture also sets the tone and foundation for the future of the startup. Entrepreneurs should be intentional about culture from the beginning while not using it as a crutch to avoid working on the hard problems to build a sustainable business. As with anything, there’s a balance between working on the business vs in the business.

What else? What are your thoughts on focusing on culture first or finding customers first?

5 thoughts on “Culture First or Find Customers First

  1. I recently started working for a startup, and I was the 12th person to join the company. I think focusing on culture is essential especially in the beginning. As an employee, the work culture at a company plays a huge role in my interest to work for the organisation and also to my level of commitment. In order to attract the best talent, company culture is something that un-levels the playing field, so to speak.

  2. I’d like to add though that culture does shift and bend as the company grows. It’s not strategic nor wise to “deadlock” a culture so firmly so as to impinge on potential growth through quality hires who will add positively to a culture base or foundation. Core values may stay the same but how it’s manifested outwardly has to bend and shift under the growing weight (hopefully of success) of the company.

    I suppose the TL;DR here is this: Stay flexible, which is in-tune with your balance statement near the end.

  3. It’s has to be culture first, because a startup core values and processes will be attractive to it’s customers. How is a startup to standout? Culture! Culture can reflected in the products, services and interactions with customers, not just something internalized.

  4. While I don’t see it as an either/or as to which is first, I agree that it is important that the founders put some serious effort into answering the questions “What company culture are we striving to create while we are steering the ship?” (implying they may be gone at some point) and “What specific actions should we be taking, now or in the future, to best insure that this culture is CREATED?”. These questions challenge the founders and the early-stage employees to establish explicit goals and a PROCESS for culture creation based upon defining/acting/evaluating/revising/acting. This is important because few founders/entrepreneurs (or Fortune500 executives, for that matter) have the skills or maintain the focus necessary for success. Perhaps an outsider with no dog in the hunt would be helpful?

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