Company culture – key to creating the perfect startup team?

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Startups are hard work. Team members spend a lot of time together, working long hours, and are often under a lot of pressure.  So, how do you build a team capable of weathering the storm, and performing well under the stresses of startup life? Disrupt Africa speaks to three startup bosses about the importance of creating a vibrant community culture within a startup company.

According to Martin Nielsen, chief executive officer (CEO) of East African online music platform Mdundo, given the amount of time people spend together when working on a startup, it’s imperative to ensure everyone has a good time at the office, and so creating a company community deserves substantial effort.

“Company culture is important because we all spend a lot of our lives in the office and it’s simply not worth it if we don’t have a good time while we are there,” Nielsen says.

“My approach to company culture is very selfish. I want to be in a workplace where I like to be. I want to have fun but still make sure I grow with the company. I think the first step is to hire people that I want to spend time with, in addition, I want people who have a personal ambition to grow,” he said.

While at first Nielsen didn’t take active steps to encourage socialising among team members, he recently changed his stance towards this.  He says he realised that fostering relationships among team members, and between himself and his team members, makes for better collaboration.

“The past six months I’ve changed a few things. I started introducing coffee meetings where I met every team member to talk about “life”. I got to know some of my team members much better but actually my secret agenda is that I want them to get to know me better. I think my decisions as CEO are better understood and accepted if my team members know who I am,” Nielsen said.

Arielle Sandor, co-founder of online recruitment platform Duma Works, agrees that a vibrant office culture is one of the most rewarding benefits that startups can offer their employees.

“It is a huge waste, especially as a young company, to spend so much time looking for and hiring talent if you don’t have an amazing office culture to bring them into. As a young startup, you can’t always offer the most competitive salaries […] This means that you need to sell people on something else – mission, and family,” Sandor says.

In fact, Sandor believes company culture is so important within a startup, that the team has distilled a list of personal qualities that are prerequisites for all new recruits at the company.

“At Duma Works, we recently did a culture workshop to determine the qualities that if not present would automatically disqualify the candidate. One of those qualities was being a fun person! When you interview people, sometimes you think you need to make compromises because it’s hard to find skilled people who are also “the perfect fit.” If you’ve identified what culture you are looking for and what personality aspects you won’t compromise on, you run less risk of hiring someone who is a good fit in the short term to fill the gap, but not a good long-term hire,” she says.

CEO of South Africa’s online rental marketplace Ekaya, Justin Melville, is more reserved in his approach to company culture.  While he says Ekaya team members need to share the company vision and motivation, personal attributes are not important.

“When you work in a startup environment you can’t be too precious about what kind of people you hire. Talented, inspired and motivated people come in all various shapes and sizes – I take them as they are,” Melville says.

“Every person brings their own strengths, strangeness and “vision” to the mix. It’s my job as startup CEO to wrangle this energy and point it in the direction of the future.”

Melville says the only “culture” Ekaya focuses on is a commitment to doing extraordinary work, a sense of humour and a self-teaching ethic.

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Inspired and excited by the African tech entrepreneurial scene, Gabriella spends her time travelling around the continent to report on the most innovative tech startups, the most active investors, and the latest trends emerging in the ecosystem.

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