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Why you only become a great startup culture by admitting what needs fixing

Thursday, 28 January 2016 | By Denham Sadler

The perfect startup culture doesn’t exist and founders should strive to continually improve internal operations, Culture Amp founder and CEO Didier Elzinga says.


In an AMA hosted by Blackbird Ventures, Elzinga gave advice on how to achieve good culture within a startup.


“You tell everyone how hard it is, and it is really hard,” Elzinga said.


“The thing I realise now in a truly visceral way is that a perfect culture doesn’t exist. Great cultures are places where not everything is perfect but where everyone has a common reason and there is enough mutual respect and desire to just get in and figure it out.


“You become a great culture by having the courage to admit that some part will always need fixing and you commit to working on it forever.”


In the wide-ranging question and answer session, Elzinga also provided numerous other nuggets of advice and wisdom for startup founders and Australian entrepreneurs.


The two skills a founder needs above all else


“Hustle and determination,” Elzinga said.


“Without the first it is really, really hard to break through the first layer of dirt to build something. But unless you are willing to just keep tilling the soil until well after any sane person would have given up you probably won’t succeed.”


The virtues of having multiple co-founders


Culture Amp was founded by four entrepreneurs, and Elzinga said this has many advantages and downsides.


“Having four is somewhat unique and a lot of people don’t like it because it can theoretically lead to deadlocks,” he said.


“We are very lucky in that we have a lot in common and that helps us move quickly but on almost any topic we are a pretty balanced spread across the spectrum. This means we don’t find ourselves siding with the same people always and we have learned to trust and rely on each other to prove on offsetting perspective.


“One of the positive impacts I think it has had is it made us more willing and open to sharing the culture with others. We already had to learn to share with each other and so I can’t just be a megalomaniac CEO and say, ‘it’s my company so do it my way’.”


Why they’ll always be ‘co-working space children’


Culture Amp has grown significantly since its humble beginning in a co-working space, but Elzinga said the team would never forget its roots.


“In our humble beginnings being around other people also striving to do something with nothing was both inspiring and also a great backdrop against which to work,” he said.


“Having people other than the four of us to have coffee with, to play table tennis, to debate politics, to talk about coding with, helped keep us sane.


“It’s been a challenge at times to balance the needs of a growing company with the needs of the local community that we exist as part of, but even that challenge I think has helped us think more openly and globally about how we do certain things.


“Whatever happens to us in the future we were born and raised as ‘co-working space children’ and so kind of like people who grew up in the country – it doesn’t matter where you are in the world you still identify with that at a very deep level.”


The importance of Atlassian

Elzinga is a non-executive director of the Atlassian Foundation, which sees the startup giant contribute 1% of its annual profits, employee time and company equity to charity.


“The Atlassian Foundation was a brilliant and ballsy move by Scott [Farquhar] and Mike [Cannon-Brookes] when very few people had heard of the 1% model,” he said.


“I think what stops people is not thinking of it at all, thinking you will do it later when you have a ‘real’ business and not knowing how to do it logistically.


“That cheque is really hard to write but as Scott says, ‘I guarantee that you’ll never miss the money and you can do amazing good in the world with it’.


“What’s great is that organisations like Atlassian are increasing visibility and there now exists simple ways of doing it via organisations like the foundation.”


The easiest way to work out if a company is a good culture fit for you

According to Elzinga, determining whether a startup is a good culture fit comes down to answering one simple question: “Is this company a good place for me to make a contribution to my development?”


“If you are at a place where you can improve the answer to that question, then you will create a more positive impact on your company culture than almost anything else,” he said.


“The thing to realise is it is not about just giving people more training or courses, it is about creating a place where learning and growing are required for the company and for the individual.


“It is one of the tricky things about creating a company culture – you want to stand for something unique that people can rally around but as individuals we align ourselves long-term much more to our own ‘craft’ than to an individual company.


“So you need to create a unique home that still allows people to ‘belong’ to things outside of the company and in fact accelerates their development on that path.”



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