Reflections on building company culture at a seed stage startup

Seed Stage Startup

I can still remember the days when our “startup” was just the two of us in our apartment in Marina del Rey. It feels like a long time ago but in reality it wasn’t. Most startups begin this way, it’s usually you and one other person and typically you’ll find yourself in your apartment, their apartment, or at a local co-working space. Then the day comes when you raise money, then you raise more money, before you know it you’re spending a lot of time interviewing, money is in the bank, time to grow the team!

Not so fast. First I have to say that I’m a big fan of the “hire slow” methodology because it is the initial team that makes or breaks your startup. I saw this first-hand at Sonos and can tell you that a team like that is incredibly hard to find and I am honored to have worked with and become friends with some truly passionate and inspired people in the process. I can still remember friends saying things to me like, “oh it’s just another iPod speaker system” or “anyone can do that!”

Sonos Products

My response was always the same – the founders have built an incredible team and every one of us truly believes we are going to change the way people listen to music. As you read this, there’s a very good chance that we did just that, for you. Anyone can build a speaker, but only a truly great team can build one like Sonos did. This was a result of a great team and a great culture, sure there were bumps along the way but the founders did an amazing job of making Sonos at great place to work.

This leads me to culture at a seed stage startup. When it’s just you and one other person you don’t have the really worry about “culture” per se. The same is true if you’re a fan of outsourcing everything – if you have a developer in Europe and she works from her apartment, and you have a marketing guy in Chile and he works from his house, then your company won’t really have much of a culture. It doesn’t mean you can’t get things done and build a great business, it’s just a different way to do it.

Twitter Offices

If you go the route of Twitter, Facebook, Apple, Sonos, Pixar, Google and many other startups, it will grow to be more than just you and your co-founder, more than just a co-working space, and soon you’ll be in an office with a team, a product, clients, and yes, you guessed it, a culture will begin.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have no prior experience with company culture outside of watching it grow and develop at Sonos, but it is very different to be at a startup and a part of the process vs. being the founder of a startup and driving the process. I’m learning every day and I have to say I think we’re building a truly great place to work where people can be creative and look forward to each day. There is lots of laughter, sometimes we even ring a gong, and while we work incredibly hard and sometimes don’t get enough sleep, we have fun while doing it.

Still like most founders we are making it up as we go along with the help of our investors, advisors, and most importantly, our team that we are building the culture with. So this is a long way of getting to my reflections but I know there are many other founders in the same place as us and I’m hoping you’re reading this going “hey that sounds like me!” If not you can hit the back button, otherwise I wanted to share a few reflections I’ve had, and I’ll keep it short since I’ve spent this long getting to them:

  1. When you interview someone, no matter how damn qualified they are, you have to ask yourself – will this person fit into our culture?
  2. Your office is part of your culture and there are small things you can do to make it better. Start to figuring-out what everyone’s favorite drink is, then keep the fridge stocked with it. Don’t overspend, it’s seed stage, still be frugal but a case of Mountain Dew ever week isn’t going to break the bank.
  3. Play some music! Maybe this just applies to us because I’m a huge Sonos fan but having music going in the office all day and encouraging a culture where people can pick their own music means you can enable people to work how they want to work. That being said, make sure you have rooms where people can go if they want to work in silence or if they just want some time on their own with their headphones on.
  4. Have lunch together at least once a week and do something silly, fun, or different that breaks the mold of your normal day. Once a week we order lunch in and watch an episode of Star Trek, it’s geeky, and who knows how long it will last, but I can tell you we all have fun doing it.
  5. Stay close to other startups. We’re right across the hall from another startup that we are good friends with, they use some of our rooms throughout the day, and we often bounce ideas off each other. Sometimes they walk in during an intense meeting, we all break out of it for a minute, remember there’s a world going on around us, and then dive back in – it’s fun to know that even as a team you’re not going it alone, there are other people doing the same thing around you.

So like I said, I’m no startup expert, I’m not a “serial entrepreneur,” I have never exited a startup for millions of dollars or scaled a business to the moon. I’m a co-founder and COO building a startup with my co-founder and CEO, we’re figuring it out and with an incredible team we’re building something that we think is honestly going to change the way you buy clothes, forever. But like Sonos back when I started (and four years into the company), right now it might not change your life at all, but I can tell you we’re working incredibly hard to build the team and the culture to make it happen.

If you’re like us, comment below and share your story, oh and if you made it this far, thanks for reading!

Photo Credits: ecstaticist via Compfight, Twitter Offices – via Flicker cc

Morgan Linton

Morgan Linton