How To Create A Celebratory Startup Corporate Culture

trex.jpgMarc Bolan, lead singer of T. Rex, was a modestly talented glam rocker during the early 1970s who lyrically never had much to say. However, when he sang, “Bang a Gong, Get It On,” he hit upon a key entrepreneurial principle without even realizing it.

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For What The Bell Tolls

One of your most important duties at your adVenture is to communicate and celebrate your company’s small wins. You and your team will face innumerable trials and tribulations along the way to success. One way you can keep yourself and your team motivated is to create a culture of celebration in which you and your team recognize and herald both your modest and momentous victories. If you do not pause and recognize such accomplishments, you forfeit valuable opportunities to add fuel to your team’s morale tank.

Just because a deal is small in absolute terms does not mean it is insignificant. During your adVenture’s early stages, each partnership, fundraising round and sale represents a significant milestone, which results in incremental revenue or capital, greater propagation of your company’s technology, or enhanced market validation. As your company matures, something counterintuitive happens. Even though the size of such milestones grows commensurately with the company’s maturation, the relative impact and excitement associated with each deal decreases. 

At Expertcity (creator of GoToMyPC and GoToMeeting, acquired by Citrix), I recall running down the hall high-fiving members of my sales team while yelling, “Booyah!” after closing a $10,000 deal. Later, when the company’s revenues had grown significantly, no one ran screaming down the hall after finalizing a multiple six-figure sale. Thus, take advantage of the excitement derived from closing small deals while such deals still matter.

BellTo celebrate our wins at Expertcity, we installed a large iron bell in our tiny kitchen, which was comprised of a filthy microwave, an ancient espresso machine and a dorm-size refrigerator with a broken door handle.

The Bell rules were simple. Anyone could ring it at any time. However, if you rang the Bell without merit, you had to bring in breakfast for the entire company.

After you rang the Bell, you then sent an email to the entire company explaining the accomplishment that prompted you to ring it. Even as the company grew and we occupied various wings of a sizable building, the Bell remained an effective way to communicate our victories. It was fun to watch everyone’s reaction when the Bell was rung; people would rush to read their email in order to learn about the company’s latest accomplishment.

The Bell was not my idea. In fact, when we initially installed it, I was concerned that it might be viewed by the employees as a cheesy, faux motivational tool. These concerns were entirely unfounded. Over several years, the Bell created a genuine feeling of community and shared purpose, and proved to be an effective means of communicating and celebrating the company’s victories, both large and small.

Gong SticksThere is nothing magical about a bell. At Commission Junction, Co-Founder and CEO Lex Sisney installed a giant 6′ train whistle that sounded like a locomotive roaring down the tracks. Every time a new advertiser was added to the CJ network, the sales team would rock the house with a giant “blasssttttt.” Lex also distributed thousands of old fashioned wooden train whistles to affiliates in the CJ network, encouraging them to celebrate with their own whistle blast each time they made a sale too.

The modality you choose to celebrate your adVenture’s victories should be an effective communication tool based on your team’s physical proximity to one another. We used a loud bell because our offices were spread out. Lex was able to use a whistle because most of his employees worked in a large, shared space. If your team is virtual, an online method of celebration might make sense.

Spread The Booyah

As noted in Peace & War Corps, startups must creatively motivate their employees in non-financial ways. One of these motivational tools is a set of Core Values that unite the employees around a common set of shared goals. 

Forget the company newsletter. Such trite tactics are for Big Dumb Companies (BDCs) that can afford to spend their resources on such non-ROI-generating activities. Instead, there are a number of more economical and effective ways for you to spread the booyah while reinforcing your adVenture’s core values.

Employee Awards – As an adjunct to the Bell, we purchased a small, portable bell and created the Bell Ringer Award as a way to recognize the efforts and accomplishments of the company’s behind-the-scenes workers. The winner of the Bell Ringer Award would proudly display the small bell on their desk where it served as ongoing public recognition of the winner’s efforts. The Bell Ringer Award bell could only be rung by current and past winners.

We used the Bell Ringer Award to recognize employees who otherwise were never acknowledged. Everyone hears about the salesperson who lands a big deal, or the business development executive who closes a large partnership. These high-profile positions often overshadow the majority of the employees who flawlessly do their jobs, day in and day out, with little or no recognition. It may not be easy to celebrate certain jobs, but the motivational impact derived from such recognition justifies the effort on your part to give such unheralded positions a healthy dose of public recognition. Some of the Bell Ringer Awardees included an Accounts Receivable Clerk whose efforts significantly reduced our receivables’ outstanding, as well as a Financial Analyst who saved the company money by negotiating a substantial hardware purchase.

Get Off Your Butt – There is no substitute for walking around early in the morning or late at night and popping into people’s offices or cubicles. Employees will appreciate your acknowledgment of their early and late hours. Such encounters are also conducive to casual, unhurried conversations, as the phones will be largely silent and the email traffic will be slowed to a moderate torrent.

By simply asking, “What are you working on?” you can open up a window into that person’s world that might enlighten you about the real status of an important company initiative. As you do these walkarounds, be sensitive to avoid undercutting the authority of your management team. Do not give the employees you speak with new directives or otherwise question the tasks assigned to them. Walkarounds can be great for morale and help you stay in touch with your adVenture’s employees, but take care to not cross the line and enter into the realm Founderitis. If you feel that someone is being mismanaged, address the issue with the employee’s supervisor, not with the employee directly.

Consistent Communication – Implement a method by which senior management regularly informs the company of significant events, attainment of milestones, etc. Such a communication tool will serve as an effective adjunct to Company Meetings. However, such communications can be detrimental if they are inconsistent. As soon as such communications cease, it is normal for the employees to assume that something negative must have occurred that management is keeping from them.

Unexpected “Thank Yous” – There are a variety of inexpensive yet effective ways to let your employees know that their above-and-beyond efforts are appreciated. Make it personal. Talk to their spouse or significant other and determine something they want, but are not willing to buy for themselves. These economical, thoughtful gifts will go much further than a verbal “atta boy” or an impersonal gift certificate. As noted in Jedi Mind Tricks, gifts can trigger powerful desires for the recipient to reciprocate. In the case of employees, such reciprocation takes the form of greater loyalty and enhanced effort. Gifts are most appreciated, and thus most effective, when they are:

  • Unexpected
  • Significant
  • Personalized
  • Unconditional

Even Keel – When an airplane experiences extreme turbulence, the passengers watch the flight attendants in an effort to determine whether or not they should be concerned. Flight attendants are trained to calmly smile and walk down the aisle without showing any outward concern. They know that if they panic, so will everyone else. Startup leaders must also walk down the halls of their adVenture smiling and nodding, irrespective of the company’s difficulties.

At every startup, the highs are higher and the lows are lower than at a typical BDC. Balance cheering your team with modulating their highs and lows. If you cheerlead too much, you will lose credibility. Conversely, you do not have to be the company’s wet blanket; be cheerful and upbeat, but guard against becoming a sloganeering Pollyanna.
rock.jpgTo paraphrase another glam rock band, Mott the Hoople, “All the young dudes, carry the news.” Celebrate the little wins as validation of your adVenture’s progress and success. Inch-by-inch it’s a cinch, but yard-by-yard it’s hard. Thus, accomplish tasks by the inch and celebrate them by the yard.

As noted in The Fringe, it is the journey that matters. If you properly block and tackle, the destination will take care of itself. Along the way, do not hesitate to bang a gong and get it on. Your entrepreneurial journey will be a lot more fun, and your victories, that much sweeter.

John Greathouse is a partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage web-based businesses. John has held a number of senior executive positions with successful startups during the past fifteen years, spearheading transactions, which generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition. He is also a Co-Founder of RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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