What is startup culture?

What is startup culture? Or more specifically what is our startup’s culture?

In the United States, startup culture has become a “thing”. You can walk into almost any startup’s office and feel like you’ve been there before. Standup desks, check. Jeans and hoodies, check. Kegerator and snacks, check. Foosball/ping pong/x-box/puzzle, check. It’s almost as if startup culture is a foundation, and then you layer your culture over it. What were once perks are now expectations. This makes sense. They are used to woo employees. If XYZ.ly is going to offer organic snacks, we have to offer organic raw snacks. If ABC.fy has free beer in the office on Fridays, we’ll have it on tap every day. So the convergence of perks makes sense to me.

What is a bit more worrisome is the convergence of the less tangible, and dare I say more spiritual, aspects of startup culture. We are obsessed with our customers. We’re all about fast; we’ll go from idea to product in one day. We give our employees freedom because we trust they will always do the right thing. I don’t believe that there is anything wrong with these sentiments. But the beer rarely gets tapped and the ping pong table grows a thin layer of dust so aren’t obsession, speed, and freedom just as likely to become something we just say to recruit?

And then I come to Guinea. Here there are just a handful of startups; most small companies are just small business. None have a “culture code” and with such high unemployment rates, few have to compete for talent. As Guinea’s largest business accelerator, we have a critical role in teaching our companies about the importance of culture. And I think the best way to teach something is to demonstrate it.

All of this was weighing on my mind as I clicked through a slide deck and talked through our six guiding principles at Dare to Innovate’s “cultural onboarding” today. But then I decided that I didn’t want our startup’s culture to be something shipped from the US and assembled in Guinea. I turned the tables. All of our employees have been with Dare to Innovate for at least 3 months; some for over a year. They know how we operate. So I asked them, “What makes Dare to Innovate different?” We discussed their thoughts and then created plans to ensure that all of our new hires were going to notice the same differences. I heard no catchphrases, no clichés. At the end of the day, culture is what makes you unique and as one of Guinea’s only “startups” we certainly are different. We hire differently. We train differently. We show up differently. I do have to admit, we have a French press in the kitchen though.

Meghan McCormick is the Co-Founder & CEO of Dare to Innovate. She is a strategist and system’s thinker passionate about creating value for communities, customers, and corporations (in that order). She is a Returned Peace Corps from Guinea, Monitor Deloitte Alumni, and enthusiastic past, present, and future customer of Georgetown University, MIT Sloan, and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.