How can startups create a workplace culture to retain staff?

Pizza Fridays?
Beanbags in the corridors?
Non-existent dress code?

In years gone by, the three items above would have had very little in common with a company environment. However, in true tech style, office environments have been completely disrupted in the last decade and a half. And now free food, jeans and trainers and creative offices are ubiquitous, and expected, perks.

This is not a bad thing, but nor is it the sum total of the ingredients needed to create a workplace culture.

Encouragingly for startups, who often have a brutal battle on their hands when competing for talent against tech giants with very deep pockets, workplace culture is a big draw for employees and doesn’t always rest on free food and yoga sessions during lunch.

So how do startups go about building a workplace culture that attracts the best talent?

Start at the beginning

Hiring smartly, using the best human and technology resources you can, for your startup is where workplace culture begins. However, you need to be clear on the type of person you want to attract to your business.

Tony Corrigan, founder and CEO of TenderScout, has recruited frequently over the last two years. The startup has grown from one person (himself) to ten, with Marketing, Sales and Customer Success teams.

To recruit, Tony takes his cue from Sir Ernest Shackleton.

“The famous “men wanted for hazardous journey” advert is a guide for us at TenderScout when we hire. We’re looking for people who find the safety net of a large tech company to be overly constraining to them realising their potential. We want a person who has different ambitions for their career.”

For people who seek to put their stamp on a business and take full ownership of a role, startups are the perfect option. But away from the Valley stereotype, startups can be tough and gritty places to work and people need to be prepared for the reality. (Rand Fishkin, founder and CEO of Moz, lifts the lid on startups and exposes the good, the bad and the ugly in his new book “Lost and Founder”. Not an affiliate link!)

Tony agress. “It is more challenging to find people who thrive on the “hard startup option” than people who feel validated by free perks. The payoff is the chance for growth at a pace that few large global companies could offer.”

Establish your values and live by them

Too many companies, startups, SMEs and corporates, have their mission statement pinned to the wall. And that’s it.

This is a problem because employees are smart and pick up very quickly when leaders in an organisation are not acting in accordance with the values they claim the business stands for.

Startups have an advantage here.


Bed down the values your startup wants to espouse while you’re still small. Ask your team to write down the values they feel are inherent in your company, or they wish were.

Before you run for the hills, thinking that talk of values and mission statements is all about warm and fuzzy feelings, they’re not (always)!

An element as tactical as your approach to remote working or flexible work hours is an example of a value. Get this ironed out now so that all team members, including the ones you haven’t hired yet when you scale, know exactly what your company stands for.
Then live your values. Nothing builds a workplace culture faster than a leader setting an example.

Brian Kenny founder and CEO of MiniCorp, a product agency based in Dublin, emphasises the importance of effectively communicating your organisational vision to your employees. “It gives them the opportunity to be a part of something great while ensuring everyone is pointed in the same direction.”

Understand the imprint you have as founder

Most of the workplace culture in your startup stems from… you.

It’s a smart strategy to build on your own strengths. No doubt your startup has been created based on your skills. If you’re a designer, you’ve most likely created a design-led startup. If you’re a software developer, it’s a good bet your startup is technology-focused.

As you grow, you’ll recruit for other skills and disciplines, but maintain the culture you stamped on your business in day one. This will do wonders for your branding as well as the workplace culture your team associate with their place of employment.

Honesty really is the best policy

Transparency, as a word and concept, is bandied about in companies, but often not put into practise.

This is an area startups can outrun global large corporates in by a mile.

Earning, and valuing, the trust of your employees is way more effective as a retention policy than providing a swing chair in the boardroom.

Create opportunities for transparency.


A round robin email in the morning highlighting the wins and losses of the day before provides insights into your startup’s performance for everyone. Regular “town hall” meetings, where the whole team shuts their laptops to listen to a company update also creates a feeling of “we’re all in this together” and respects people’s input.

A thriving workplace culture also grows when people feel their voice matters.

Regular one-to-one meetings with your team members will put your values into action and build open lines of communication.

Take advantage of your advantages!

You might not be able to compete with the salaries and perks on offer by the tech behemoths, but your startup is a valuable employer too.

Brian Kenny, serial tech entrepreneur says that being able to offer the freedom to manage your own time is a valued attribute amongst his employees. “It’s so important for them to discover and be self-aware. By giving your employees autonomy, it allows them to work at their own time and pace, for example, someone could be at the height of their creative ability at 3 am.”

Not only is there an excitement around startups, but people, especially the younger millennial generation are seeking purpose in their work.

A free pizza pales in comparison against the chance to change the world. Just the way successful startups are doing.

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