For many job seekers, startup companies hold the allure of a high-energy environment, the chance to make a big contribution and the possibility of an outsized reward if the company succeeds and grows.
But it’s these high stakes and fast pace that make it crucial to prioritize organizational culture in the startup hiring process. With a small staff, the impact of hiring a great fit—or a mismatch—is magnified. A poor culture fit can bring down the entire venture, while a strong fit can strengthen morale, boost productivity and encourage innovation.
How does the notion of “culture fit” differ for startups, and how can they optimize hiring processes to preserve a strong culture? Let’s explore some of the challenges startups face and one business that has set the standard when it comes to hiring for culture fit.
Challenges of building a strong startup culture
Many job seekers are invigorated by the higher risk associated with a startup experience, and some uncertainty can be a healthy motivator for employees. But it can also contribute to a high-stress environment, and when tensions run high, clashes over personalities, values and goals can come to the forefront, contributing to a weakened or even toxic organizational culture.
Startups should be cognizant of diversity in hiring from the beginning. Succeeding as a startup employee takes a certain amount of grit, tolerance for change and the ability to dive into tasks you may have little experience with. But when hiring managers target too narrow a set of traits in candidates, they sometimes end up with a homogeneous staff that lacks diversity of experience and background, or even gender, age and race.
In the early days of a new venture, there’s often a relentless focus on profitability and productivity. The danger is this leaves little time for culture-building discussions. Without clear direction on a long-term mission and core values, startups run the risk of emerging with no clear culture at all, or allowing an unhealthy culture to flourish.
This is why it’s crucial for startup founders to identify the pillars of their company culture early, communicate them often and exhibit them in their own behavior.
Hiring lessons from Airbnb’s legendary culture
Peer-to-peer home rental marketplace Airbnb has one of the most admired and studied company cultures in the world. The core values of entrepreneurship, “home” and adventure are infused into every aspect of the employee experience, from an empowering management style and benefits that include regular travel stipends, to the company’s workplace design, which provides employees “landing zones” instead of dedicated desks.
For a tech company like Airbnb, a strong culture can be the competitive differentiator needed to win top tech talent. Software engineers and developers are some of the most in-demand candidates in today’s tech job market.
The success of Airbnb’s culture is no accident. Co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky prioritized culture from day one, and preserving it remains his top priority, even as the company has grown to more than 2,000 employees.
“The culture is what creates the foundation for all future innovation,” CEO Brian Chesky said in a letter to his workforce in 2013. “If you break the culture, you break the machine that creates your products.”
Unlike most companies, Airbnb leadership defined the company’s core values before making a single hire. Chesky likened hiring his first employee to adding new DNA to the company, and he pored over thousands of resumes before making a decision. Not every startup can afford to consider thousands of candidates for each role, but they can all learn from Airbnb’s emphasis on a thoughtful recruiting process that prioritizes culture fit.
As Airbnb chief employee experience officer Mark Levy works to scale the product team to meet demand, he recognizes that the need for more headcount can’t supercede the company’s value of diversity.
“We’re […] putting the diversity of our tech team ahead of our growth metrics,” Levy says. “Our goal is to create a world where anyone can belong anywhere, which means our workforce should represent the makeup of our hosts and guests.”
Tips for prioritizing culture fit in startup hiring
Define and document your company’s mission and core values. You can’t manage your culture without a clear understanding of what you want to achieve, embody and prioritize as a business. Publish these on your career site so job seekers can gauge whether their own values and goals align with your company’s.
Infuse job titles and descriptions with language that reflects your culture. Make sure your job content and writing style reflect the bigger goals and passions driving your business. Write job titles that represent the diverse responsibilities of your roles. In job descriptions, describe how you put your company values into action every day, whether it’s through your work environment, management ethos, organizational structure or employee programs.
Use employer branding materials to showcase your culture in action. Feature photos and videos of your office and team activities on your career website, Company Page and social media profiles.
Don’t sacrifice diversity as you hire for culture fit. “It’s important to keep in mind that you can share the same values with people different from you,” says Corey McAveeney of Kulturenvy.
If you’re looking for top tech talent to power your startup and strengthen your culture, try Seen by Indeed today.