Why every startup should have a culture manifesto

Written on February 10, 2015

I’ve recently kept myself busy thinking a lot about companies and their cultures. What it means, why it is important, and what I believe an “ideal” company should stand for today.

Based on these thoughts, I created a culture manifesto that should be particularly interesting for startups, but can really be used as a blueprint by any company.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves - one thing at a time.

A few years ago I attended a workshop here in New York hosted by Stack Overflow on how to find and hire top technical talent, and let me tell you, these guys know what they’re talking about.

It’s a constant battle. Everybody is on the hunt to get the best developers available. To attract them to your company, you need to stand out. The way to do this is not to pay them more money than anywhere else (for the short term, that might actually work), but to create an awesome culture, a company where the brightest people thrive and want to work and stay.

Looking around at the startup scene in Silicon Alley, I have to say that most companies got the message. There’s just one catch: many of them got it wrong.

I get it, if Google has a slide and a Play-Doh room your startup needs some quirky perks, too. But, perks are not culture. Don’t get me wrong. Love perks, still not culture.

Before we move on, let’s have a quick look at some definitions of culture, shall we?

“A way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization (such as a business)”
“The customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group”
“A set of shared experiences, values, and goals that is unique to every engineering team”
“Some bullshit that corporations like to throw around to pretend not to be either evil or incompetent.”

Well, personally I would describe culture as a set of collective values over time.

Interestingly enough and according to Wikipedia, the word has evolved and changed its meaning multiple times over the last century. The last thing I want is to spark a heated discussion about its absolute definition, but having a foosball table in a break-out room has nothing to do with culture. It’s a placeholder, leaving its cultural meaning up to your interpretation.

Matter of fact, if you go by my definition, established companies must have a better defined culture than startups because of more actual available data to derive values and behavior from. It might not always be the best, but at least you know what you’re getting into.

So why is that all important? Why should you and your company care?

In my opinion most startups and their founders are too focused on perks and missing out on an opportunity to shape real company culture with meaningful values from the ground up. There are just a few startups out there who have realized the potential of a developed culture as a tool to stand out and are setting an example of how it can be done, Buffer being one of them.

Sooner or later, your company is going to have a culture, no matter what. So why would you not go ahead and try to create one you love? It’s guaranteed to set you apart from a sea of employers, many with the same perks.

I’ve created an Open Culture Manifesto as a conversation starter for founders and a blueprint for companies to implement real cultural values, outside of perks. Together with a strong mission statement, I’d consider this the second most important document any company, and particularly startups, can have.

The Open Culture Manifesto is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License and you can fork it on GitHub.

It’s not too important that you agree or disagree with the points in the open culture manifesto. No two companies are the same, and I strongly encourage you to write your own version. Think about it as your company’s backbone, a set of values people can look up to. If you keep that in mind, you and your company are off to a great start with shaping meaningful culture your employees will love, not just the developers.

Martin Buberl

Purveyor of Internet duct tape.
If you'd like to get in touch, feel free to shout @martinbuberl.