What a Productive Startup Culture REALLY means

Gary Vanbutsele
4 min readMay 25, 2023

Startups, in my humble opinion, tend to go one of two ways when it comes to culture;

They’re either all about the fun or all the way to the other extreme, where it’s all about the hustle.

In other words, it’s either all about coffee, free snacks, foosball machines, Beer óClock Fridays, team getaways, or to the other extreme, it’s beds in the office and work till you break.

The ludicrous report of Musk reportedly firing a top engineer (over Twitter) for hinting that his engagement was waning because people were losing interest in him rather than because of some kind of algorithmic interference surely attracts the attention of the press. But is it the way to get people to perform at their best?

This then begs the question, what is culture?

What is culture?

Let’s start with what culture isn’t. Culture isn’t

❌The best offices with the best coffee

❌ Team get-togethers

❌Uimited PTO (paid time off)

Do these things help to attract the best talent? Sure! We even offer them at Whale, BUT it doesn’t make the culture.

Culture starts from something much deeper;

✅ What’s the purpose of why we exist?

✅ What are our values but more importantly, how do we LIVE them?

✅ How do we ‘be’ what we wish to see in the world?

When Jeff Lawson, CEO and co-founder of Twilio, was asked to define culture, he said,

“Culture is the collection of people; you’ve got 130 people out there making decisions every day. Thousands of decisions are made every day. Culture is how you, as, say, a leader of the company, are confident that every one of those decisions is the right one….You don’t hire great people and then say you can’t make decisions.”

Creating a Productive Startup Culture

So, if the importance of culture is to create an environment where you have people making the best decisions that they can, it implies a number of elements.

It implies trust.

It implies that action is taken.

It implies (or at least it should do) that there are a set number of values in place to guide decision-making and action.

Culture matters

An investor once said to Brian Chesky, Airbnb Founder — “Don’t f*ck up the culture!”

Culture matters to investors because it forms the foundation for growth.

Culture impacts team cohesion, attracting and retaining talent, customer experience, brand perception, and it also impacts productivity which correlates to growth.

A culture that prioritizes customer satisfaction and exceptional service can result in higher customer retention rates and positive word-of-mouth, leading to increased sales and business growth.

Conversely, a toxic or negative culture can lead to employee disengagement, high turnover rates, and a decline in productivity, which can negatively impact the bottom line through increased recruitment and training costs, decreased efficiency, and loss of valuable talent and expertise.

But how to get a productive startup culture right?

Well of course, as with most things, there isn’t a one-size fits all approach, but there are a few processes that will help.

In my experience, I’ve narrowed it down to 3 important points;

Start with culture from the beginning

“Your early team is the cultural DNA of your company, and since they will be heavily involved in hiring and training, good or bad behavior propagates, and once the domino effect has started it’s extremely difficult to stop it.” Forbes

The first thing to mention, seemingly obviously, is that you have to make culture a priority. As a founder, you have to make it YOUR priority! You’re not going to hire an HR person and expect to get culture right. No, this is the job of founders and of core teams.

Empower not just decision-making but results

It’s not enough to empower decision makers. You have to instill a mindset, especially in a startup where every dollar counts, that decision-making and action are tied to results and accountability.

I don’t tell my team what to do. I ask them to show that what they do matters.

LIVE the values

Last month I focused on the importance of transparency in a team. The reason being that being transparent creates a sense of shared accountability and ownership.

Ultimately it’s about LIVING the values. Our values aren’t stuck up on a wall. We don’t print them. We don’t have them as a screen saver. We do, however, connect our team meetings to them. We connect our performance evaluation to them. And we ask team members to show how they’re living them.

Bottom Line?

In the fast-paced and ever-evolving world of startups, achieving productivity is not merely about setting ambitious goals or optimizing processes. It goes beyond the surface level, delving into the heart of an organization — its culture. A productive startup culture is the secret ingredient that fuels success, propelling companies to innovate, thrive, and make a lasting impact.

In case you don't believe me, think about this…




Gary Vanbutsele

Co-founder and CEO of Whale. Former founder of an IT services company where every day felt like putting out fires. Now obsessed with unlocking growth!