9 Tips for a Better Company Culture

We spoke with nine entrepreneurs to get their tips for building a great team and retaining the talent. Have any more tips? Let us know in the comments below.

1. Always Be Hiring

“Hiring is a continuous process, not a punctual hunt,” says Alexandre Winter, founder and CEO at Placemeter, who advises you to avoid specific job descriptions. “Hire in tech, product or business, but only take people that really wow you.” It’s important to think about the person’s career path, too — let them adjust to new responsibilities and be mindful of where they are and where they’re going. Winter says one of the biggest mistakes you can make with bright and talented employees is burning them out by giving them too much work too soon.

2. Encourage Entrepreneurial Thinking

“Inside of a startup, each and every person needs to think like an owner and an entrepreneur,” says Levo League CEO and co-founder Caroline Ghosn, who encourages people to ponder the thought, ‘What would I do if I were running this company?’ “Getting each and every person comfortable with asking for forgiveness, not permission, allows the entire team to benefit synergistically from their talents as a team being greater than the sum of our parts as individuals.”

It’s also crucial to hire and cultivate the “whole person,” she says. “We foster open conversations about the well-being of our teammates, their personal needs and situations.” That might include creating a flexible work schedule for a new mom or sending a developer to a coding bootcamp. In the end, it makes employees happier and healthier, makes them better at their job and increases productivity. “We care immensely about the success of the integrated person.”

3. Remember That Your People Are Your Business

“Hiring is the most important thing you can do at a company at any stage in it’s lifecycle,” says Brett Lewis, founder of Skillbridge. “Great people versus okay people is the difference between success and mediocrity — and it is something that founders spend far too little time on early on.” He also says that in the startup world, your sixth hire should be a recruiter, who can devote time to finding other fantastic hires.

4. Lead by Example

“As a leader in a company, everyone feeds off of what you do — the culture starts with you,” says Unroll.me co-founder Jojo Hedaya. “If you come in early, are always focused and happy, it sets the tone for the rest of the team.” Show passion for the company and its mission, set goals and expectations and work hard, and your team will follow suit. “I was always a believer that a great leader is one that gives a lot, but can also expect a lot in return,” says Hedaya. “I always explain to the Unroll.me team that we are a family with the same goals and values in mind. We are brothers and sisters who would do anything for each other.” Hedaya cautions that it’s more than just skill that goes into a successful team — you need people to fit well. Everyone should be having fun and enjoying what they do, and if the best developer out there is difficult to work with, you’re better off without them.

5. Character Counts

matt baldwin

Image: Baldwin


Baldwin Denim is based in Kansas City, and the mom-and-pop shop is in the business of people. “We want to hire really good people that communicate and exude positivity, and look at someone’s character, first and foremost,” says Matt Baldwin, who says Baldwin’s employee retention is high, and the business often promotes from within. “Our employees have to have the same qualities as our brand — authenticity, quality and attention to every detail,” he says.

6. Don’t Underestimate Freelancers

Hiring someone is a big commitment — and what if it doesn’t work out? For some kinds of businesses, freelancers make a ton of sense. “I like to say we have an army of freelancers, which means I can hire great talent without having to lure them away with a salary we could never afford,” says Rachel Hofstetter, founder-in-chief of Guesterly. Plus, technology like e-payments and Echosign make compensation and paperwork simple. “Because we’re a startup, we can move fast and treat them like we’d want to be treated.”

Hofstetter also recommends hiring college students and recent graduates — they’re professional, eager to learn, affordable and enthusiastic. Plus, if you’re in the market for help in the tech department, these young people are likely ot be well-versed in the most cutting edge technologies.

7. Listen to Your Gut

If you get a weird feeling or sense of doubt about someone, trust it — you probably have reservations for a reason. On the flipside, if you have doubts about a current employee’s contributions, don’t be afraid to let them go. It’s the old startup adage: Hire slow, fire fast. “Company culture is a proactive thing, it’s not something that builds itself,” says Alban Denoyel, co-founder and CEO of Sketchfab.

8. Give Employees Ownership and Flexibility

“We really encourage everyone here to holistically be happy, and excited,” says Emmett Shine, CEO of Gin Lane Media. Shine says his agency seeks out ambitious, “auto-didactic” creative technologists who wouldn’t be attracted to a traditional agency — there’s an emphasis on what you create, rather than how much you create. “This makes our management structure as minimal and ‘flat’ as possible — encouraging our team members to take ownership of the things that we make, and their role in making them,” says Shine, whose company also permits flexible scheduling to fit left-of-center lifestyles. “We really encourage everyone here to holistically be happy and excited. If that means taking a day or a week off, to be with family or go on a trip — then that’s fine. A happy employee will be multiples more productive than someone not inspired, or stressed out about something.”

9. Work to Maintain and Build Company Culture

“Arguably the most important decision you make as a startup or young company is who to hire,” says Jeff Jackel, CEO of BuzzMob. “And this decision is no less critical when hiring the your fifteenth employee than it was for your third hire.” He emphasizes that in these critical early stages, each hire should fit well and improve the company’s efficiency and culture — if they don’t, they’re the wrong person.

While it’s largely the CEO’s responsibility to set and cultivate the company’s culture, it’s a never-ending task. “The importance of this nuanced element of business can’t be underestimated or neglected,” says Jackel, who spends one day per week focusing on company culture in one way or another. “Even the best products and services have fallen victim to a lapse in attention to company culture. If you constantly cultivate this as much as you do any other aspect of your business, you’ll have an efficient office full of happy people.”