Hackernoon logoWhat really is a startup’s culture? by@christophmccann

What really is a startup’s culture?

Christopher McCann Hacker Noon profile picture

Christopher McCann


Building a startup is an exercise in learning how quickly can you learn, integrate that knowledge and then apply it. Without a shadow of a doubt, the last two years running snap40 has been the steepest learning curve of my life. When I now look back on views or perceptions I held two years ago, even six months ago, they seem incorrect or different to how they are now.

Culture is frequently discussed, not just in startups but in larger companies. Its intangible and incredibly hard to define — and even harder to build. Its also incredibly important — a toxic culture is a knockout blow for any company, especially a startup.

At the start of snap40, I believed culture could be created by defining how you wanted your company to be. That is not true.

A culture is not something that can be defined by sitting down and writing a list of platitudes. It comes from the people who are there at the start. It is a function of the founders and the founding team. And its a function of progress.

I had a conversation about six months ago with an investor where he asked about team dynamics (“culture”). I gave an answer that, on reflection, sounded like a stock answer — something like:

“We have a great team of world-class people, we’re all really committed to delivering the best product for our customer. We all get on really well but we’re not afraid to challenge each other.”

In truth, that answer demeans the culture we have, it demeans the team we have. We do have a team of world-class people. We are dedicated and committed. We do get on well and we do challenge each other. But thats not what makes snap40’s culture special.

Recently, we moved to a new office — we’re expanding (we’ve just hired employee number 7 and hopefully employee number 8). When we moved in, I was really stubborn about the look and feel of the office — we tore out the carpet and replaced it with colourful tetris (cheaply), we took time to pick the right desks, the right chairs, we made sure we had loads of whiteboard space and we created an open plan space that still had some separation so our engineers and data scientists could focus on writing code. This is not what a culture is. My co-founder, David, recently called this the productisation of our culture and he is absolutely right — the carpet, the free snacks, the bean bags — none of that is culture, but the reasoning behind why we designed our office that way, is an expression of our culture.

So, what is culture?

For me, a culture is disparate collection of sentiments, of beliefs, of viewpoints and actions that are physically embodied in your company. For me, they cannot be pre-defined — you have to learn what they are as your company grows and evolves. You have to live it, breathe it before you can understand it.

Note that not every part of your culture may be positive to some people — in my opinion, you cannot and should not try to be all things to all people.

So ultimately what is our culture at snap40? That could easily be the subject of another post but, for me, our culture lives around a collective of people, personally motivated to change how healthcare operates based on their own experiences, willing to go above and beyond to make that happen. Driven by a shared desire for quality and to be better, to create and make a change.

We are not perfect — nor could we ever be. There are things we get wrong — all the time. But I’m really proud of how much each and everyone of us tries to learn from that and do something better, deliver something better. We strive to do things better, even if it means more work. We don’t always take the easiest option — we are willing to put in the effort if it means we can build a better company and a better product. We put the effort in.

We also care about each other. We don’t just see each other as work colleagues, but as friends — as family.

I’m also sure one of our team would define our culture slightly differently — thats kind of the point.

That culture has been built by me, by my co-founders and by the founding members of our team. It was built in the wee hours of the morning during coding marathons in hotel rooms near to the hospital we did our first clinical trial. It was built during intense discussions about our product direction. It was built during the challenges of little money and little time.

For me, this is one of the most important parts of any startup and I spend a lot of time thinking about it. At snap40, it guides our hiring decisions, our product decisions, our roadmap. Every decision we make is ultimately derived from our culture.

We are just beginning to understand it and its constantly evolving, it will constantly keep growing. We are exceedingly careful who we hire because we know the impact they will have on our culture — this is our family after all.

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