#Asia Building culture at a small bootstrapped startup


What is company culture? Can it be easily broken down into factors like vision, values, norms, systems, symbols, language, assumptions, beliefs, and habits?


With VoyageUp growing to a small 8-member team, I don’t know whether it is too early or already too late for us to think about the culture we are building in the company. But in the middle of a hectic day of launching the localised version of our app in multiple markets I spent some time thinking over this.

Firstly, what is company culture – can it be easily broken down into factors like vision, values, norms, systems, symbols, language, assumptions, beliefs, and habits? To the product manager in me any problem/question that can be broken down into measurable factors seems easier to solve.

Perhaps the right approach would be to “improve” one/some of these each “sprint”. But I realise this is not something which can be tracked on Trello. We are barely able to track our regular stuff ever since we decided to launch in nine locales.

Do new employees bring parts of the culture with them or does the culture already exist? For a small startup maybe it is what the founders bring in when they start out with a vision and the right values.

Let me rephrase that – I meant for a small “bootstrapped” startup. Because for many heavily-funded startups culture can often just mean crazy perks, swanky offices, great power without accountability. The last one is reserved for a lucky few for e.g. those who were the founder’s batch mates/juniors/seniors from college 🙂

Right at the start we took a call to focus on building a very employee-friendly workplace, optimise and provide perks which made sense and be as flexible as possible. We took the best of what we saw in successful companies around the world and tried to implement some of them. So here they are in no particular order:

1. Free Food: This may be looked upon as an indulgence in a bootstrapped company but this frees up the team from the hassle of ordering/making their lunch. More importantly this ensures we all get to spend 45 minutes just brainstorming on random ideas together during lunch everyday.

2. 20% time: Yes we stole it from Google. And of course it is not a strict 20 per cent but the team is spending some part of their bandwidth in working on areas which interest them. The first result of this initiative will be a new app called Last2People which we will be launching in a week from now.

3. A good Office: We explored multiple options for the office when we were starting out. While there were some cheaper options available we decided to go with a co-working space called BHIVE Workspace. In hindsight it has turned out to be one of our best decisions. They seamlessly allowed us to move from one location to the other when we grew from four members to eight.

BHIVE Workspace keeps on organising multiple startup events that has helped our team get exposure to many things. Of course, the team’s favourite is the free beer event on Thursdays

4. Empowerment: Anyone in the team can check in code to production or submit the new version of the app to the app store. While this may become risky as we grow but we have seen a tremendous sense of ownership and pride in the team. They take pride in their work and the iOS and Android engineers regularly try to beat each other by writing better code

5. Learn new skills: While we realise there is a need for subject matter experts but for a small company the lines blur and some of our Facebook posts/ads our done by engineers and not the marketing team (of course, if we had a marketing team they wouldn’t have been so supportive of this)

6. Optimise spending: There are so many tools available which let you do things without spending too much. Canva for marketing posts. Fiverr if you want to do localisation at cheap rates or a video ( our first promo video cost us US$40 to make in two days). Buying laptops from Blubirch – we got lucky that one of the well-funded food delivery startup scaled down their Bangalore operations and sold their laptops to Blubirch. We picked up Macbook pro from them at rock bottom prices.

7. Vision: Perhaps the most important one in the end. VoyageUp’s vision is to help people form real connections and bring the world closer together. All the products we launch will be tied in with this vision. Extending the vision further the team ensures they personally connect with people around us. Recently they helped another startup test their app and recommended some new features to them. You can’t have one vision for your company and not live that vision in real life.

A funny anecdote to round up the post – On Monday morning, the security guard of the co-working space told us that he and some of the housekeeping staff had a conversation on Saturday. In his words “We felt that among all the startups in the building, you guys seem to be the only ones who are working hard but also find time to connect with everyone around you. And have fun too. If VoyageUp ever has a opening for us then all of us would love to join the company. ”

Maybe, he says it to all clients who work out of this building or perhaps it’s validation that we are doing something right. It is going to be a long path but we feel that building a good company culture maybe the single most important factor for long term success. And our definition of success is building a product which a lot of people love.

Would write more on this topic in a few months as things evolve. Do let me know your thoughts in the comments.

The views expressed here are of the author’s, and e27 may not necessarily subscribe to them. e27 invites members from Asia’s tech industry and startup community to share their honest opinions and expert knowledge with our readers. If you are interested in sharing your point of view, submit your article here

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