Why Culture Matters: From the Eyes
of a Startup Founder
We sat down with SenSat co-founder and CEO, James Dean, to find out why culture is so important in a startup, where it comes from and how to shape it.
October 08 2019
James Dean, co-founder and CEO of SenSat
Where does culture come from?
When you first start out, culture is essentially an extension of the personalities of the founders and early employees. If you think about it, that makes sense; an early-stage startup is really just an idea, and the only asset of the company is the people behind that idea.
As you begin to tell people about your idea, you attract other people to work on that idea. These people don’t always have to be like you (in fact it is useful if they aren’t) but they must have a shared mission and shared values/behaviours of how to achieve that mission.
This is where culture comes from - it is the product of shared beliefs and behaviours that are common traits between the people working together. Culture is what can make work enjoyable, intriguing and satisfying.
How would you describe SenSat’s culture?
I think this is one of the hardest questions. If I were to ask you to describe your personality, could you do it? Fortunately, we have been putting a lot of thought into this recently, so here goes… I think our culture is one of adventure, curiosity and exploration. SenSat attracts learners - the curious, naturally inquisitive types and significantly supports them in their development goals to achieve our shared mission.
We are intrinsically passionate about what we do, and are a group of people that constantly challenge one another to improve everything we touch - in every situation. Every day we come to work excited about the opportunity ahead and share a sense of close-knit teamwork. We enjoy ourselves thoroughly and build strong friendships.
Finally, everyone recognises the importance of their work and how it contributes to our mission on a grand scale. Looking around, they are proud to say that they are a part of SenSat.
At the beginning, what type of people did you want at SenSat? Has this changed?
Honestly, for the first year, I wasn’t conscious of culture. To me, it was a whack word used by big corporates to distil irrelevant and meaningless concepts onto workforces. I was very very wrong, and in a way, I learned that lesson the hard way.
I think very early on (<10 people) you have to hire people you like. This sounds obvious, but at the end of the day it is an incredibly difficult time in your company's life, and it is normally the case that people you like, you like because they mirror an element of you (which is ideally drive, determination and ambition - the traits and micro-startup employee absolutely needs). So we did that, and the early days were really fun.
Then we hired a few people that didn’t share the same behaviours or values we did. These people were negative. They didn’t believe in the mission and spoke negatively about other colleagues. They didn’t overly care about the quality of what they did and how it impacted others. When this happens, the natural step is to try and fix it, which we spent around 6 months trying to do. This was a dark 6 months where everything we tried to motivate and support these people didn’t work, and it evidently became clear the only way to grow was to shrink and remove the people who weren’t culturally aligned from the business.
This was the first time (November 2018) we had a stab at defining our culture, and that exercise made things much clearer. It became evident why parts of the business were succeeding and parts were not, and it gave us a route to ensure that we did not make the same mistakes in the future - what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Now, cultural fit and alignment of shared behaviours/values make up 50% of our interview process. Why? Because what we do is hard, and to achieve it we need exceptional people that challenge us daily. Scaling a company through hyper-growth is a team effort, and the first step is having the right team.
How do you think SenSat’s culture differs from other startups?
I think because we got it wrong before getting it right, we have probably been able to proactively build a strong team with aligned culture. The result is a challenging but deeply rewarding place to work. I also think we’re a bit weird and crazy in our own way, for which we are proud (I don’t know any other startups that hosted weekly street parties in Shoreditch throughout summer).
What can a founding team do to make sure their startup has a great culture?
Recognise what makes you, you. Then build on those qualities. During the same exercise also realise what your limitations are. Ultimately, you also need to ensure your culture is welcoming to the type of people you want to hire. It should foster diversity and drive you towards your shared mission.
What can people look forward to at SenSat next year?
Ski trip? As well as that, we’re investing a lot of time to help everyone map out their career goals and align with our OKRs. We want everyone to be the best version of themselves they can be. Expect achievement, new challenges, exploration and pay rises!
For those who want to work at a startup (or at SenSat), what should they consider when it comes to culture?
Startups are currently really fashionable, but they definitely are not for everyone. Startups are hard work, they take dedication, rejection and failure on a daily basis.