When you hear the term startup culture, what pops up in your mind first? Bean bag chairs and foosball tables? Brainstorming sessions that have a tendency to turn into impromptu dance parties? A place where coffee flows like a mystical elixir? 

You probably already know that there’s more to the startup culture than all this. But what exactly are they? 

In this blog, we’ll delve into the art of building a startup culture that will keep employees invested in your company; a culture that transcends the clichés and embraces the true spirit of innovation.

What Is Startup Culture: The Basics

As Close’s founder Steli Efti said in this podcast episode, “Great culture is the elimination of all friction.”

A startup culture is a unique blend of shared beliefs, values, and norms that brings a team together to work towards common goals without hindrance. It’s an organization’s character, built on principles such as trust, transparency, agility, and innovation.

Key Aspects of a Startup Culture

  • Transparency: In startup culture, transparency is key. This means maintaining open communication lines where everyone feels heard and valued. It creates trust and fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility. 
  • Agility: In a rapidly changing world, startup companies need to be flexible. A startup culture must be able to adapt quickly, revise strategies, and think on its feet. But remember, being agile does not mean losing focus.
  • Innovation: For startups, innovation goes beyond generating great ideas; it’s about turning those ideas into valuable solutions for customers. A culture that encourages creative thinking and calculated risk-taking will foster continuous improvement and growth.
  • Learning and growth: Startups place a high value on continuous learning and personal growth. Employees are encouraged to expand their skills, explore new areas, and embrace a mindset of lifelong learning.
  • Autonomy: Startups promote entrepreneurship and encourage employees to take ownership, make decisions, and be proactive in their roles. Autonomy and independence are valued.
  • Fun and informal environment: Startups often create a fun and informal work environment as compared to corporate cultures. They may have casual dress codes, flexible office spaces, and social activities.

Your startup culture should be based on your company values and align with your mission, vision, and business model. It’s essential to define and articulate your core values, as they serve as guiding principles for your organization’s behavior and decision-making.

Who Is Responsible for Company Culture Building?

In the early stages, everyone plays a role in building culture. As the startup grows, there are a handful who should own culture building and ensure that values are upheld consistently.


The founding members of a company, including founders and executives, play a crucial role in shaping and instilling the company culture. 

They set the tone, establish core values, and lead by example. Their actions and decisions heavily influence the overall culture and serve as a guiding force for the rest of the organization.

Human Resources Team

The HR team members are culture ambassadors—they play a pivotal role in maintaining the company culture. 

They are responsible for hiring individuals who align with the values and contribute positively to the culture. HR professionals also design and implement initiatives, policies, and programs that support the desired culture, such as training programs, and employee engagement activities. 


Managers play a key role in instilling company culture once your startup reaches a level where the founders don’t work individually with employees. 

They serve as the direct link between leadership and the rest of the team, translating the company’s vision and values into business practices. Managers can foster a positive work environment, promote open communication, and address cultural issues.

5 Signs of a Toxic Startup Culture (And How to Fix It)

A toxic work culture is an environment with practices and rules that generate unhealthy work habits and conflicts among employees. This prevents them from being fulfilled in their work, hinders growth, and reduces their productivity. Here are 5 signs of a toxic culture and how to fix them:

1. Lack of Transparency

Transparency is all about fostering authenticity, collaboration, informed decision-making, and accountability within an organization by freely sharing information. It shows that the company trusts its employees, which is very important in a people-first culture.

A survey report showed that 81 percent of employees felt increased happiness and productivity when employers demonstrated trust. This shows that employees thrive in an environment where transparency is embraced. 

A lack of transparency would leave employees in the dark, leading to increased uncertainty and disengagement. They may question the motives behind decisions, harbor suspicions, and feel disconnected from the company’s vision. This lack of trust and information can hinder collaboration and create a toxic work environment in the long run.

How to Fix This: 

Openly communicate across all levels and ensure company updates and insights are accessible.

How do you know if your startup is transparent enough? To identify if there is a lack of transparency in your organization, consider asking yourself the following questions:

  • Are important decisions regarding the team or the company in general made without consulting or involving employees?
  • Are employees regularly acknowledged and informed about the rationale behind important decisions or changes?
  • Do employees have access to key information, such as financial reports, company updates, or decision-making processes?
  • Are there opportunities for employees to participate in decision-making processes or provide input?

You can also gauge the level of transparency in your organization by directly asking your employees through anonymous surveys or one-on-one conversations. 

2. Resistance to Change

Resistance to change is a glaring sign of a toxic startup culture and is perhaps the most difficult one to address. 

Every company runs on systems, which to a certain extent, becomes a routine that everyone is accustomed to. Later, team members may feel skeptical about any disruption introduced to this system.

It manifests as an unwillingness or reluctance to adapt to new circumstances or embrace innovative ways of doing things. Employees may cling to the status quo and resist any deviation from established routines. This will stagnate growth and slow down any new initiatives that need to be introduced.

Resistance to change often stems from a fear of uncertainty and failure. In a toxic startup culture, this fear is amplified, leading to resistance when change is introduced. 

How to Fix This: 

To effectively address resistance to change, organizations must first understand the causes. 

It could be rooted in poor communication, lack of trust, insufficient engagement, or a hierarchical structure that discourages open dialogue. By identifying and addressing these causes, startups can create an environment that encourages and supports change.

3. Blame Game

When things go wrong, you have two options—look at it from the perspective of what process didn’t work or point out the person that dropped the ball. The latter means playing the blame game—a one-way ticket to toxic work culture.

Playing the blame game undermines team dynamics and inhibits problem-solving. Instead of fostering a culture of accountability and learning from mistakes, it gradually breeds a culture of fear, distrust, and defensiveness. Valuable time and energy are wasted on dwelling on past mistakes rather than actively seeking solutions.

So, if your startup has an environment where people or groups/teams of people are frequently singled out, blamed, and criticized for making mistakes, it’s time for a culture reset. 

How to Fix This: Shifting the focus away from assigning fault and instead focusing on finding constructive solutions should be the guiding principle in your work culture. Your team members need to feel safe when trying out new ideas and have to feel free to fail and learn from their mistakes. 

4. Overworked Employees

Overworked employees result from a culture that promotes work over the well-being of its employees, resulting in no work-life balance and, eventually, resulting in burnout. 

An unsustainable work environment not only takes a toll on employees’ physical and mental health but also erodes their motivation and results in high turnover rates. 

How to Fix This: 

You need to actively prevent overwork and also check for any signs of overworked employees.

Identifying overworked employees in your startup can be challenging, particularly if you have a remote work environment where signs may not be as visible. However, some indicators suggest an employee may be experiencing excessive workload and strain:

  • Constantly working extra hours and on weekends
  • Low enthusiasm 
  • Heightened emotions
  • Poor work performance and absenteeism
  • Withdrawal and disengagement

If you see some or all these signs, your employees are probably overworked, and you need to address the root causes. There can be many reasons why your team members are overworked. It could be unreasonable targets, lack of resources, or adequate personnel. 

You can then take steps to address the issue. Setting clear expectations, promoting self-care, and encouraging time management are a few ways.

5. Poor Communication

Poor communication can have detrimental effects on productivity and employee satisfaction. It may lead to mistrust and conflicts resulting from misinterpretations, misunderstandings, and hidden agendas.

One of the consequences of poor communication is the siloing of team members and departments. When information is not effectively shared across different departments, collaboration becomes challenging, and opportunities for innovation are missed. This can result in duplicated efforts, wasted resources, and a fragmented work environment.

In a toxic work culture, there may also be a lack of constructive feedback and guidance from managers and leaders. Without clear communication about performance expectations or areas for improvement, employees may feel unsupported and undervalued.

How to Fix This: Organizations should create a culture that encourages honest and respectful communication at all levels. This involves providing opportunities for feedback, promoting clear and timely information sharing, and establishing proper communication channels.

7 Strategies to Build an Unbreakable Startup Culture

Let’s look at seven battle-tested strategies that will empower you to create a culture of relentless ambition, unstoppable innovation, and unwavering team spirit!

1. Leadership Sets the Tone 

As author and speaker Scott Berkun said, “Every CEO is, in fact, a Chief Cultural Officer. The terrifying thing is it’s the CEO’s actual behavior, not their speeches or the list of values they have put up on posters, that defines what the culture is.”

Although everyone is involved in company culture, it is heavily affected by the personalities of the founding team. 

Strong startup cultures have leaders who demonstrate the company’s values through actions and decisions and inspire employees to do the same. 

For this, leaders need to be good communicators and create an open line of communication between themselves and their employees.

There’s a communication gap between the C-suite or leadership team and other employees in many organizations. A study by Gallup found that only 13 percent of employees strongly agree that their leadership communicates effectively with them. 

It’s easy for the leadership team to become isolated from the rest of the company. Great company culture is fostered by breaking down these silos and building trust. 

Ultimately, leading by example is about consistency and authenticity. Leaders need to demonstrate the values and behaviors they expect from others consistently, and they must do so authentically.

2. Regularly Revisit Your Workplace Culture

A startup’s culture should evolve as it grows and faces new challenges. Conducting regular assessments of your culture allows you to gauge how well it supports your team’s well-being, productivity, and overall success. 

This can be done through surveys, focus groups, or one-on-one conversations to gather employee feedback and insights about their perspectives on the existing culture.

Many large companies and small startups have changed their culture to align with their evolving business goals, market dynamics, and employee needs. An example is Zappos, the eCommerce footwear brand. They shifted to the holacratic model, where there is no traditional hierarchy, and people are given equal freedom. The founders evolved to this culture, responding to market and real-world conditions in real time.

7 Strategies to Build an Unbreakable Startup Culture - Regularly Revisit Your Workplace Culture.

3. Hire for Cultural Fit

Lack of cultural fit is an important factor that negatively impacts employee retention.

Bringing the right people into the team is essential—those who align with your company’s values and demonstrate enthusiasm. When selecting candidates, culture fit should be among your criteria for top talent. They should be able to contribute positively to the overall culture while bringing diverse perspectives to the table.

Some companies have separate discussions to assess cultural fit during the hiring process. You can ask targeted questions and present scenarios that reflect your cultural values to gauge how well candidates are fit for your startup culture.

By internationally hiring for cultural fit, you can create an unbreakable startup culture and build a team that works towards shared goals.

4. Promote Innovation 

Innovation is the lifeblood of successful companies, fueling a culture of learning, growth, and ownership. 

It gives employees a sense of purpose. So, encourage your team to think out of the box and seek new ways of doing things. Create an environment where calculated risks and experimentation are encouraged, and failures are seen as learning opportunities.

Innovation can look like exploring emerging trends, continually refining their skills, or cross-department collaboration. Encourage employees to try new approaches and alternative solutions to their tasks. 

Some startups often allow employees to break from routine tasks to develop new ideas. 

Google famously implemented the “20 Percent Time” policy, which allows employees to dedicate 20 percent of their workweek to pursue projects and ideas outside of their core responsibilities. They explore projects that show no promise of showing immediate results, but that might reveal big opportunities for Google down the road. 

5. Support Employee Professional Development

In a good startup culture, employees feel they are gaining professional advancement and are confident in their skills. 

In a survey by LinkedIn, around 94 percent of employees responded that if a company invested in helping them learn, they would stay longer. Here are some ways you can support your employees’ career development while also enhancing your company culture:

  • Work with employees to map out clear career development paths and goals. Identify the steps employees need to take to advance in their careers. 
  • Let employees know the promotions they can get according to performance
  • Establish mentorship or coaching programs where experienced employees can guide and support their colleagues.
  • Offer upskilling perks. Provide ample opportunities for upskilling through external courses, workshops, or internal training sessions. You can also offer stipends to cover their training.

If you’re organizing internal training sessions, you can incorporate your company’s values and draw parallels between the training content and how it relates to the organization’s mission and culture. By aligning the training with the company’s culture and challenges, you make it more relevant and applicable to their work.

6. Create Opportunities for Employees to Connect 

Employees who are connected with each other are an important part of a great startup culture. This will bring more engagement and a sense of belonging within the organization. 

Building connections among employees can look like this:

  • Social events like team lunches and happy hours
  • Having a buddy system in place when new recruits join the team
  • Offering mentorship from more senior members
  • Off-site team retreats and team-building exercises
  • Employee engagement apps—for more remote/hybrid teams

Speaking of fun retreats, check out the fun trip the Close team had back in 2018!

With these frequent employee touchpoints in place, you can help your team feel like they belong to a community rather than just to a company, thus building a strong culture. 

7. Create Comfortable Office Spaces

Although it isn’t the most important aspect of your culture, the office can reflect, enhance, and reinforce the whole culture of your business. Providing a work environment that enhances productivity and makes employees feel welcome is important in how they perceive the company. 

You can start by ensuring that the office layout and furniture prioritize ergonomic principles. Ergonomic chairs, adjustable desks, and proper lighting are some of the basic amenities. 

Startup Culture - Make Sure Your Office Looks nice Like on This Picture


To enhance the office experience, you can set up recreational areas in your workplace. In a survey about games in workplaces, 80 percent of in-office workers said they felt more relaxed, and 54 percent said that games alleviated the afternoon slump. Hey, maybe ping-pong tables are not so trivial after all!

Building a Great Startup Culture Takes Time 

None of the companies that have amazing startup cultures, the kind that employees crave, are not built overnight. 

It requires patience, dedication, and the right mindset (and some bean bag chairs?) to navigate the ups and downs of the startup journey. By investing the necessary time and resources, startups can create a culture that sets the stage for long-term success and becomes a source of pride for all those involved.