Hierarchy, Suits &
Other Startup Culture Killers

Greg Larkin /

Cohesiveness and a shared sense of mission are the most undervalued assets in any startup. Any large company which acquired a startup, bear-hugged it and then saw growth slam into a brick wall will have learnt that the hard way. It is also one aspect where startups have an incredible advantage over huge, hierarchical companies where people are usually there to get paid, rather than to change the world.

I can only speak from my own experience in startups and convey what cultural missteps still resonate.

1) Pulling rank– Everyone in a startup should think of themselves as a permanent apprentice, regardless of their experience. If you’re doing it right you’re solving an old problem in a bold, new way and it’s therefore your first rodeo. I once had a boss who exclaimed, “I am the managing director of Product. Goddamit!” When the UX team told her that her last feature wasn’t testing well. After that outburst she was the soon-to-be-fired-Managing Director of Product.

2) Give all you can – the rest is just ego – Your job is to make everyone feel a sense of ownership, pride and progress. That comes crashing down when you steal credit or withhold praise.

3) Everyone who’s in the office should be in the zone. Everyone else should leave. Work late when you need to – not just to look busy. Someone who isn’t sleep-deprived or family deprived, or day-spent-hiking deprived has more insight, focus, perspective, and passion for their work. The optimal use of an hour is more important than the most hours. Investment banking associates work long hours to demonstrate obedience, startups work long hours to build something that is important and time sensitive.

4) Everything you know is an assumption that you must be willing to test. If you’re not comfortable with that – then you’re in the wrong field.

5) If something is taking too long – abandon it. After years of hitting product walls, and occasionally breaking through them I think all delays can be attributed to 3 things: a lack of team alignment, poorly measured technical complexity and inability to climb out of a rabbit hole that should have never been dug. Pick a time-box, stick to it or get out.

6) Go in with a willingness to leave. Anger and disenchantment are the lethal cancers that destroy startups where everything else is working well. Once you feel that way you should quit.

7) Once you don’t want to solve a problem over a coffee you should quit.  This is one of those litmus tests that I wish I had known at the outset. If you can’t bear to sit across from the person you need to solve a problem with, then you should quit. If you can’t build enough rapport to get unstuck, then you’ll stay stuck.

The inverse of this is an organization where everyone is looking out for each other and building something transformative. That is the most thrilling, fulfilling sense of forward momentum you can ever experience.