startup culture

When I do a turnaround, I start with culture

Tl;dr: Some practical tips on how to improve culture and productivity at your startup based on my experience (with photos, lol).

I’ve done a turnaround at startups few times. With heavily funded startups, it’s truly shocking how much damage can be done in a short period of time. Like seriously, wow!?

So sure, there are all the systems and processes, the day-to-day targets to focus on, but really everything is hamstrung if people genuinely hate where they work.

So what do I do from day 1? Focus on getting people to actually enjoy turning up to work, and to believe if they work hard, they’ll be rewarded.

The office is fun

This has become my habit when joining a company. I head to a donut shop. I buy 100 donuts and turn up at the office. I leave them on my desk and get to work. At around 5 pm before people leave I call a town hall. I’ve set up a couple of tables with chairs.

culture doughnuts

Receipt for 100 doughnuts

With a tad of fanfare I announce, we’ve going to have a donut eating competition! There’s always trepidation at the start but there are always a few extroverts that love fun stuff so they join in and the laggards follow suit. By the end of the competition, everyone is cheering and having fun.

It’s stupid I know, but it’s a start and it’s fun. It’s just not expected.

  1. The first thing I want to work on is the office being a place where you can have fun.
  2. I bring in my PlayStation and some speakers so people can stay late and play together.
  3. I always buy a ping pong table. It annoys the crap out of some people, but whatever 😉 I want people to play together over lunch, after ‘normal’ hours, and sort of during the day, but with an open office it can be annoying

Open up communication

The next thing I do is to reframe the staffs’ notion of communication. I want everyone to know they can share and they will be listened to. More so, that if they share concerns, they will be fixed.

fun in office

My PlayStation and sound equipment

  1. I talk to staff and figure out who they respect the most and listen to, who has unofficial influence? They do not have to have the most senior titles
  2. I talk to the influencers and listen, really listen. I ensure they are comfortable in sharing- that there is trust. What do they want to see changed?
  3. Then you deliver on small things. The staff starts to see if they come to you with issues, they get fixed. Then they come more. After a while they get annoying!
  4. I organize town halls and over-communicate on what we’re working on. Staff are pretty silent the first few times, but once they grok they can actually say things without getting in trouble… they won’t hold back! Don’t get mad with the impertinence. If they’re saying it, they’ve been annoyed for a while


  • Listen and try to understand. Don’t judge
  • If they share something in confidence, keep it a secret
  • If there is something small that needs to be fixed, fix it immediately
  • If there are larger things that need to be done, try empowering the person to fix it themselves, or propose how to do it
  • If staff gang up and complain in anger, don’t take it personally. They’ve been angry a while. You messed up and you need to fix it
  • Over-communicate. Keep things that might stress out staff though (such as funding issues) to yourself. They don’t always want to know

Step up staying at the office

Next, I want to influence staff to increase their hours. If you have dealt with the basics of the office not being a cemetery they have to wake up to daily, is fun, and they are listened to and results are seen, then the foundations are there.

office party

Now I want to introduce more fun and staying at the office. My goal is to get everyone in the office to make their colleagues their real friends. If you have been hiring correctly, then people should want to be friends with one another. Of course, each division (for a larger startup) will be a little different, but there is nothing wrong with tribes of customer care, devs, sales, etc. One question I ask staff when I have them interview applicants is “do you want to have beers with this person?”

In pretty much the first week I announce there is a party Friday. If you have a small team it’s simple – just need a bottle of vodka and some glasses. You do a little more if you are larger, but it’s alcohol and maybe some pizzas. I don’t pander much to boring people, other than ensuring there is some seltzer stuff, but it’s up to you if you care about vegans, lol. I’m being flippant- I actually do think about people, but only so much as there is a real job to do, and organizing parties is not the core job.

Most startups have young staff, so you just don’t need to overthink this all. You just buy booze. They’ll be playing ping pong and blaring music in no time.

Friday drinks aren’t always a big party thing. You just put out some booze and cups at the end of a table and people pick up a drink. Normally people keep working for an hour or two. Maybe a few people talk and it fizzles out. The point is that the option of fun is there.staff drinks

What you are setting a president for is that staying at the office is fun and colleagues aren’t all dicks who refuse to stamp your purchase orders etc. It’s so important that people socialize and drink together. It solves a lot.

I’m not promoting drinking, and not all will partake (I have worked with a tonne of Muslims) but the fact people are having fun changes dynamics. You “the boss” are less of a dick now too.

Make working at the office later normal

There is no fecking way you can just make people work later if they are used to not doing so and if they are not personally motivated to do so.

The easiest way to get a few staff to work later is free dinner (after you have introduced Friday drinks). Ok, it might be a tad more expensive in the USA but it’s cheap in Asia. I don’t care if you disagree, this is where you have to go. You can also get rid of it after a while.

ping pong table

Ping pong and whiteboards

There are cheapskates who will stay a bit longer just for some pizza and will leave immediately. Don’t get annoyed by that, embrace them. They’re upping the visibility of staff that more and more people are staying late. The more people staying later, the more it seems the norm.

It’s not about “being seen” it’s staff taking on more ambitious targets they need to work on, or side projects to show they should be promoted. I know there are certain types are reading thinking I’m a monster, but this is startup. I’m not making people stay late, I’m giving them reasons to want to for their own self-interest. That’s the key.

You want to break the “everyone leaves at 5 pm when the school bell rings” mentality where staff is morose clock watchers. Free food works.

If you make a lot of money then you can get into “order whatever you want”, or you have a $50 budget per night. But we are into banking and consulting territory. I wouldn’t do this.

You can start by just seeing how many heads there are and ordering ramen, pizza, etc. There are 10 people – order 3 large pizzas. To be honest, I forget how this goes down. I always delegate this stuff at a point as the system is working.

Working harder becomes more normal

At a certain point, you notice things are just working better. You aren’t the only one at the office at nine. Whilst working on this

working late

Working late

office work culture thing is a Google 20% project for you, it needs to be in your head on the periphery. You can just tell when it’s starting to work and when things are humming along.

Every evening there’s more noise. People are there on Friday because it’s they’re hanging out with their friends. One of the secretaries or marketing people always ensures there is booze and pizza on Friday. You still have a lot of work to do but you make a point of making an appearance. The staff smile when they see you. They throw an arm around you and make a joke. They say they are going to some Irish bar later and you absolutely have to join them. You do occasionally.

Birthdays and festivities

I should have mentioned this earlier somewhere. Absolutely make an effort for people’s birthday.

Get HR to make a list of everyone’s birthdays. At the start I will organise a cake or something. Over time you get someone to handle this. You don’t have to keep making a huge effort of buying something, but make sure to at least sing happy with staff

If you are more theatrical you could buy a crown and cape that the person can wear for the day. That’s a real cultural thing though and better for younger teams. If you are a fintech filled with older people in shirts, they might find it infantile in a negative manner.

It’s just a nice touch that the borg remembers birthdays though.

Finally, start filling in the blanks yourself. Secret Santa is a fun thing to do, even if everyone isn’t Christian. I take out teams for Chinese new year dinner and do the noodle throwing thing. If everyone on the team is Muslim be a little sensitive about eating in the office during Ramadan. This is all about just being a nice and moderately respectful person. You don’t have to bend over to elicit respect from your staff, you just have to show you are thoughtful.

Communicate the upside potential

Now that your startup isn’t the worst place in the world to be stuck in, you want to sell the dream.

Why are staff at your company? Ask them. What are their aspirations? What do they want to be promoted to? Do they want to be their own boss in three years?

Gather intel on each member of staff. Once you know what they want, use it against them to get them to work to achieve their own goals.

You can (negatively) manipulate people into doing things for you in the short term through threats and the like, but that’s weak management and leadership. It will not work for long but it will create a horrible culture. You achieve so much more with carrots- let the stick be enforced by the team rejecting organ failure.

Staff only do things because:

  1. They see the benefit for themselves in the short term (maybe a bonus)
  2. They see the benefit for themselves in their long term development
  3. They see the benefit for their friends in the office
  4. They want to tell mom about the startup they are working on which is in the news so they have a sense of pride

Each person has individually weighted goals, but all four matter.

I practice what I call “positive manipulation”. The way I manipulate staff is to use their own values against them so the outcome is culture

Me: “Ok, you could not work on this project, but will it help you achieve your goal of x?”

Staff: “No Alexander, it won’t. You’re right.”

If staff do something wrong or are acting in a negative manner, getting angry won’t be effective. You want to make the puppy sad by criticizing their behaviors and never the person. Behaviors can change. The person they are most afraid of letting down is their idealized self.

Me: “Are your behaviors helping you or harming you? Do you think you made Derek upset by shouting at him? Do you think there might have been a better way to handle that situation? You said you want to manage a larger team- do you think your behavior will be aligned with how you see yourself when you envisage that role?

It’s just that simple. But if I don’t put in the work to take a sincere interest in each individual, I don’t know enough to manipulate the shite out of them for their own benefit, to achieve the big goals I told someone else the company would achieve.

You need to do this with each and every person that reports to you. Try and learn more about each person though. It’s impressive to know everyone on the team intimately.

There is some blue-haired snowflake losing their shite about me manipulating people at the moment. There is a difference between being a sociopath manipulating people, and understanding how to positively manipulate people to overcome their limiting beliefs. I can explain more, but go get a haircut first.

The key goal here is to get everyone working not because you tell them to, but because they want to. That’s empowering them, not holding power over them.

If you only hire AAA PhDs to cure cancer, they will self-regulate. You just need to get out of the way, but that’s not to say even top performers don’t have limiting beliefs. You just need to be a little more capable in how you converse with them.

Most startups are trying to sell more sneakers so there is no mission worth rallying behind per se. You either need to make how you run your startup aspirational (e.g. customer care at Zappos) or make working purposeful for the person’s aspirations. Staff rally behind their own self-interest for the other 99.99% of startups when “positively manipulated” correctly.

Up the targets

Of course, you are driving results all the time regardless, but once people are working for themselves and not just the pressure you get exhausted by through micro-management, you can really up the game.

Normal people do not set big, hairy, audacious goals (BHAG) alone. You have to set them with (for) them. It is a beautiful thing to see how much people can achieve when:

  1. They care
  2. They feel empowered (understand the difference between responsible for and authority to achieve)
  3. They feel you will remove any blockers they will face
  4. They are clear on the goal
  5. They have a strong sense that it will be hard, but they will figure it out, and ultimately be successful

When I have staff really committed it’s easy to tell. Your role becomes that of an enabler.startup whiteboard

  1. How can you support them the most?
  2. Be specific about the outcome
  3. Break everything down to the end goal, week target, and daily goal
  4. Track progress on a whiteboard, daily, weekly, and monthly
  5. Always work harder than they do
  6. Never do anything you won’t do yourself and can’t demonstrate proficiency (it’s hard to get AAA output if you are pressuring them to achieve a lot)

I personally love whiteboards. They are highly visible and are a constant reminder of what’s to be done. No one else will really be bothered to look at them, but I like the idea my staff thinks other people are quietly judging them. People have such a need to be congruent with their idea of themselves, such that third parties subtly encourage people to be their best selves.


Hiring internally is a big deal.

If you have been “positively manipulating” everyone you want to illustrate glow-ups whenever possible. Promotions are where the bullshite talk hits the road. People love to be promoted. They’re straight on the phone to momma. Momma is on to her friends bragging. It’s not even about the money- it’s recognition.

For all other staff, so long as they feel the promotion is justified they have two key emotions:

  1. They’re happy Brenda is promoted as she deserved it (and an external wasn’t brought in to TAKE that role)
  2. They look to themselves and wonder what it takes for them to be promoted too. They’re annoyed they weren’t too, but they know it is possible and all that BS Alexander was saying wasn’t a lie. You can grow at this startup and it is a meritocracy

If it was a close call, then you may need to have private conversations on why Jim wasn’t promoted (so he doesn’t lose faith). This is the social EQ you develop if you genuinely care about your staff.

Hiring externally may seem easier, especially if you are funded. Hey, get the headhunter to do the work, drop $20k, and boom, you have a new skill set and they hopefully compensate for your inadequacies.

If you have been selling the dream to staff, hiring for a promotion role tells staff “you aren’t capable enough”. Be careful here. It’s one thing to move a sales monkey (AE) to a sales manager of 3 others, it’s another to make that loudmouth the VP of Sales. I can talk shite, I can motivate people, but am I the ideal hire to be a VP of Sales to take a startup to the next level, hell no. Like the AE, even the CEO needs to know their limitations.

Recalibrate culture with weekly awards

As your startup develops you will need to prioritize certain goals and behaviors.

  1. Goals: You want to shop that you can cross-sell a service to investors. Well, you need sales to make the effort
  2. Behaviors: You want staff to work harder, to teach one another, to take the initiative. Staff need to know what matters

Each week on Friday I have a closing ceremony around 4pm, or before drinks (if I know everyone attends). In this town hall I do three things:

orphanage support

Supporting an orphanage staff cared about

  • I give updates on our progress
  • I allow staff to ask questions
  • I give awards

For awards, you should have around three specific ones. You can have staff nominate people or you can just pick them. I try to keep these awards for the same thing for at least a month till everyone starts working towards them.

I make small token awards (little trophy), but the key is that everyone claps and takes a moment to see someone is being appreciated. I have done this for things such as:

  • Hardest working person
  • Goes beyond the call of duty
  • Took the largest initiative to make something new or better without being asked
  • Nicest person in the office

These awards just illustrate what management values. You could have the same three awards for all time and they could be a few of your written values.

I found that how I run these sessions changed over time. The key for you is to just start and see what works for your culture.

Formalise your culture

Ok, so codifying culture is something I have always left a little too late and staff start to become numbers to me. TBH, it was a function of lack of experience, but I think culture develops in a way you can’t always purposefully plan for. I think you try to hire a type of person and those persons in aggregate set a culture for you to work with. With that group, you then become a little more purposeful about what matters to you. You then set your hiring around doing more of x and less of y.

I’ve done startups many times and each culture is different. There’s only so much you can influence it. At something like 20 people you have something to mold, but it’s going to look like a cup or a castle no matter what you do on the clay spinning plate thing that people who do stuff with clay use (sexy time in the movie Ghost).

When I have got to the point of allocating explicit mind share to codifying culture it’s always been at around 60 to 300 staff. The ego thing is you and your 3 top managers write some BS bro code that is devoid of reality. Coming from a corporate you espouse platitudes that mean nothing. If you were challenged you sure as heck couldn’t explain how your core value of ‘integrity’ applies to defense contracts.

You’re just worried about making payroll, staff is concerned with the fact you said there were values they committed to. The point of values is to direct you to the answer when you receive their questions.

Values mean nothing if you don’t use them in meetings with hard and painful questions.

It’s been a long time since I wrote a culture code. I sure as shite can’t tell you what all the values were. What I can say is that I didn’t write them. I had the staff write them, and I didn’t overwrite them (entirely). The reason corporate value statements don’t mean anything is that some pointless person wrote them for a press release.

I studied mission statements in Uni and always thought WTF is this BS. I wasn’t meant to say that, but I did (I was not popular with my lecturers).

You have a corporate culture. You may like it to by x, but if it is y, then it is still y. You should have your staff write your values. You might learn something about your own reality.


This blog was originally a tangent I went on when writing the collection of culture codes and values. This ended up being 3.5k words so I made it a standalone blog.

What should you do with this blog? There’s probably an idea or two that you can test and apply. So go do that starting now.

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