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What can we all learn from start-up culture?

Autonomous Autonomous | Jul 2, 2017

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The narrative of the tech start-up’s early beginnings often follows a similar pattern. A simple realization in an ordinary setting in an everyday routine eventually leads to a game changing business model.

The origin story of Dropbox reads: Drew Houston came up with the idea for Dropbox on a bus ride during college, when he really wanted to access some files he'd left on a USB drive somewhere else.

AirBnB: Joe Gebbia sent his roommate, Brian Chesky, an idea: What if they made a designer's bed and breakfast, complete with a sleeping mat and breakfast? It was a way to "make a few bucks." Almost nine years later that idea is worth $25 billion.

These stories tell a narrative that a simple idea can lead to unprecedented success and change the world. There is, of course, a lot missing from this story: the exceptional journey from idea to execution; the late nights, endurance and luck that lie in the middle.

Yet what these stories say is that anyone can change the world and that all it requires is a good idea. It’s an empowering vision and one that has inspired thousands of aspiring tech start-ups and a generation of entrepreneurs.

These stories are at the heart of start-up culture. They represent self motivation, originality and autonomy. They describe a success route which doesn’t depend on good grades, an excellent history of work experience or even an Ivy League education - although I’m sure it helps. It’s a new era of the American Dream and whilst it is by no means easy, it offers a way to success by carving out your own path. Elon Musk’s journey to success reads like a rollercoaster ride of unlikely events from doing a ‘double major in economics and physics’, to ‘shoveling dirt in a boiler room’, ‘being ousted as a CEO from Paypal’ and then ‘launching a rocket into space’ as illustrated in ‘How Elon Musk Started.’

Picture Source: @Funders and Founders 

What we see in start-up culture is a whole company of individuals functioning like entrepreneurs, like the people in these stories: passionate, self motivated, problem solving; and with their eyes on the goal. As you can imagine, it’s a pretty productive business model.

We at Autonomous are more in the business of innovating objects for the office, start-up culture is the drive for change in the way we work today. So we thought we would take a closer look at some of the features of start-up culture to see what we can all learn - what we can apply to our own offices and workplaces to help us #WorkSmarter.


To give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected”, Facebook

To connect everyone in the world through the 'things' they find interesting.” Pinterest

Belong Anywhere.’ AirBnB

To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.’ Twitter

Notice the words "everywhere", "everyone", "anywhere", "the world", these companies all have a vision that is poised to change the world. They are built to be innovative, transformative and impactful, as such they already attract a certain type of applicant.

Now we don’t all have to be changing the world to create this culture. What we can take away from their example is the vision. When people believe in a vision, they understand the "why" of their work, which is a much stronger force of motivation than the "what".

With a sense of vision, employees aren’t simply carrying out tasks, meeting deadlines or following orders, they are "giving everyone the power to share ideas" or "making traffic flow like water". Equally they aren’t working for a paycheck or for a generous annual bonus, they are working to change the world.

This is what differentiates start-up culture from traditional corporate culture.

The CEO as an Icon

If vision is crucial to a start-up set up, then no one is more crucial to upholding it than the CEO himself.

There’s a reason that there have recently been films featuring Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and even Edward Snowden. Because people who have leadership in tech have taken up iconic roles in popular culture. Okay so Apple isn’t exactly a start-up and Snowden isn’t a CEO but have you ever expected to see a thriller about a rebellious government coder?

They aren’t people in suits who reside behind closed doors and emerge only to shake hands and take pictures. CEO’s within tech are innovators, the ideas men, the change makers in the world today.

As a company grows, the CEO is a powerful tool for instilling and sustaining the core values of a company to new and old employees, investors and customers. As was recently discussed in Five Founders Discuss Start-Up Culture, "Company culture is driven in these start-ups, particularly in their early stages, by their founders. What attitudes they present are often found as unwritten company values".  Likewise in a recent interview with Fast Company in an article titled, How Facebook Keeps Scaling its Culture, Mark Zuckerberg said:

“I think it’s been a process over time of building a culture where people think about the mission in the same way that I do...That’s allowed us to take on more and more products and things that we can try to solve for the world.”

Of course this can backfire as well, as Forbes brought to light in their article: Uber Employees Hate their own Corporate Culture Too: "Seems like the perception of a company in the media, and therefore the integrity of its leadership can be problematic to customer rating, each CEO should be a kind of emblematic person, a head of state".

The article explores how, among other things, the bad press about Uber: it’s leadership and the treatment of its drivers, (Check out How Uber Uses Psychological Tricks to Push its Drivers Buttons) have led to declining rates in employee contentment.  

So it’s clear that the iconic status of the CEO can be a blessing and a curse. However, the important take-away is that having an individual as a symbolic center of a business is an effective way to unite a company, project values and compel people to continue to meet them. If, like Zuckerberg, you can get your employees to think like you - the rest is history.


This brings me to another crucial aspect of start-up culture. Intrapreneurship means taking an entrepreneurial approach to managing tasks or a team within a larger company. In practice, this looks like a company of leaders and problem solvers, passionate and empowered.

Because start-ups inevitably start small, they begin with a collection of people with a unique skillset, contributing their expertise collaboratively. This means that they are founded on an open culture and flat hierarchy. As they have grown bigger, they have sought to preserve this culture in the interest of innovation.

Instead of layers of managers buffering the lower ranks from the CEO and higher management, there is an open and direct environment allowing people to directly influence a company and most importantly give them ownership of it. In start-up culture, everyone is empowered to achieve their own potential and everyone has their voice heard. Example like Ben Silberman - founder of Pinterest - addresses his entire staff for a Q&A every Friday at Pinterest HQ in San Francisco isn’t uncommon in the scene.

What can we all learn from start-up culture?

Ben Silbermann, CEO of Pinterest

So long as there is a clear mission statement and leadership to tether and root employees, they can run autonomously. This in turn means a culture of trust which leads to the infamous endless holidays, working any time of day to suit you, working from anywhere, video games and sleeping pods in the office. In a startup, you don’t need to tell your staff what to do, they’re already solving that same bigger problem - how to "connect the world", how to "make traffic flow like water".


As you can imagine, because startups run on passion and vision, a core part of the hiring process is about detecting those qualities in applicants.

Startups look for personality, talent and potential over relevant experience, they look for quirks over conformity. For each company this is different and specific. Google notoriously calls it ‘googleyness’ and a person must have a good level of ‘googleyness’ in order to be hired.

On Google Careers, in their "How it Work’s" section, they describe how they measure "Googleyness: Share how you work individually and on a team, how you help others, how you navigate ambiguity, and how you push yourself to grow outside of your comfort zone". Whilst CEO of DropBox Andrew Houston cited a six part check- list to screen potential candidates, two of which are ‘the drive to do important things’ and to ‘want to do things better than any company ever before.’

The Entrepreneur recently reported that ‘Zappos hires according to cultural fit first and foremost. It has established what the company culture is, and fitting into that culture is the most important thing managers look for when hiring. This promotes the culture and happy employees, which ultimately leads to happy customers.’

What we can start to think about is the different qualities we want our employees to demonstrate. As opposed to looking at relevant experience, we might look at whether they have humour, patience, honesty or resilience - each quality is sure to contribute differently to a role and to your overall work culture.

These tech start-ups are whole enclaves of early adopters, so it is wise to take a look at what they’re up to to consider what might be coming in the future. What they prophesy is a huge change in the way people work on all levels and across all industries. A flat hierarchy of trust, passion and autonomy, where people can be encouraged to lead from all levels.

When we at Autonomous develop products to re-invent the office space, we are looking at the way work culture is changing: how we can facilitate and innovate our spaces to accommodate new work cultures; to help us work smarter and healthier; and to be more productive.

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