Notes On Strategy; What Can We Learn From Religious Leaders About Building Early-Stage Startup Culture?

Alternative Working Title: Notes On Strategy; Engineering Your Early Stage Startup’s Culture For Longevity

The topic of culture has been in the news quite a bit since the New York Times published an investigative piece describing what it is like to work for Amazon. While culture is something I think about all the time, that article got me thinking about religion and culture . . . and how that relates to the early stage startups in which we invest.

In this post I plan to:

  1. Examine what we mean when we say “culture” and tie that to the work that startup founding teams do during business model search and discovery.
  2. Examine the structural characteristics of religious communities; How do they maintain a sense of purpose, direction, and elicit devotion and commitment from members of the community?
  3. Provide some pointers about how first-time startup founders might get things off on the right footing as far as culture is concerned by making certain deliberate choices early in the lifecycle of their startup.

I am thinking specifically of startups raising their first institutional round from seed stage venture capitalists, or perhaps a Series A round of financing. These teams are usually small, often fewer than 10 people.

To get things started; What is Culture?

Culture is the learned and shared behavior of a community of people which distinguishes that community from other communities.1

Some of the things that distinguish a culture:2

  1. It embodies a way of life, an approach to thinking, feeling, and believing about the world.
  2. It endows the members of the cultural community with a social legacy from prior members of the same community.
  3. It provides a framework that enables members of the community to think abstractly about how they should behave;
    1. It provides lessons about how members of the community should react towards recurring problems by pooling the collective wisdom of past and present members of the community.
    2. It provides a guide for community members when they need to interact with the external environment.
  4. It is the process by which the history of the community is created and brought into permanent existence.

In this analysis I am most interested in religion as a cultural system.

According to Clifford Geertz religion is:3

  1. A system of symbols which acts to
  2. Establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in people by
  3. Formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and
  4. Clothing these moods and motivations with such an aura of factuality that
  5. The moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

It is not difficult to see that a religion is in fact a specific type of culture and further, that every cultures is a kind of religion. In the rest of this post I will use the term “religion” and “culture” interchangeably. I also assume that a symbol may be tangible or intangible.

The structural characteristics of a religion are:4

  1. A religion inhabits a unique world: Religions create, structure and propose a universe that is unique to adherents of that religion such that members of the community can explain, make sense of, and differentiate what is within their world from what is outside their world. This helps establish lines of commonality as well as lines of difference, and helps confront change and challenges.
  2. A religion is grounded on certain myths: Every religion possesses sacred myths that tell a story about something that happened during the genesis of the religion and that continues to have great influence on contemporary realities experienced by adherents of the religion. Myths:
    1. Help devotees of a religion make sense of the past, the present, and the future.
    2. Are a powerful means of engendering a certain mood and attitude within the devotees of a religion.
    3. Focus our attention on that which is sacred and important within a religion.
  3. A religion possesses rituals: Rituals help to focus the devotees of a religion on specific concepts or ideas at a specific point in time, also rituals enable the adherents of a religion to express their beliefs about the world in the form of a tangible display that appeals to the senses through action.
  4. A religion possesses gods: In the context of religious worlds, gods represent instances of language and behavior that is held up by the religious community as exemplary, worthy of emulation, and possessing interpretive power in terms of how that community understands the world.
  5. A religion possesses systems of purity: These systems of purity help to differentiate what is acceptable from what is unacceptable, right behavior from wrong behavior. This is a system that enables members of the community deal with negativity within the community.

What role do symbols play within a culture?

  1. Anat Rafaeli and Monica Worline: Symbols in Organizational Culture – A symbol is a visible and physical manifestation of an organization. It is an indication of organizational life that derives its meaning from the social and cultural conventions and interactions among the people who belong to the cultural organization. Symbols can be experienced through the senses. Symbols play the following functions:
    1. They reflect organizational culture: Symbols communicate information about what we think we know about an organization. They act as a bridge between our emotional and cognitive responses towards an organization.
    2. They trigger internalized values and norms: Symbols serve as a cue to trigger certain expected, desired, and acceptable behaviors once a person enters the physical environment of an organization or whenever the person is acting explicitly as a representative of the organization to the outside world.
    3. They frame conversations about experience: Symbols act as a frame of reference for guiding the communication that takes place between members of the same organization, or between members of a specific organization with people who do not belong to that organization.
    4. They integrate organizational systems of meaning: Symbols integrate the culture, norms and values, and shared experiences of members of an organization into a coherent whole within which members of the organization experience the world.
  2. Sherry Ortner: On Key Symbols – A key symbol is an element of a culture that is crucial and distinctly unique to the organization of that culture. They perform the function of carrying and conveying cultural meaning to people within the culture as well as to people outside the cultural community. Key symbols might be identified when:
    1. Members of the cultural group discuss the symbol’s cultural significance,
    2. Members of the cultural group are positively or negatively aroused by the symbol, and none are indifferent towards it,
    3. The symbol appears in many different settings and contexts,
    4. There is much elaboration around the symbol, and
    5. The group imposes numerous restrictions around the symbol. For example, misuse of the symbol can incur severe sanctions.

There are two distinct categories of key symbols. Summarizing symbols express meaning in an emotionally powerful way that is of uniform significance for all members of a given culture. They are generally accorded sacred status. Elaborating symbols make it possible for members of the religion or community to communicate ideas and feelings with one another, and to translate such feelings and ideas into tangible action. Elaborating symbols are generally analytic in nature and rarely attain sacred status.

What does this mean in the context of building an early-stage startup?

  1. Communicate a clear world view internally and externally. One question I ask myself when I meet with a founder is this; Why is this specific person uniquely suited to solve this problem in this market and why do I believe this team will succeed in its effort to accomplish this incredibly difficult task?
  2. Preserve and embellish important stories, particularly those that reflect qualities and themes that the founder wants to become aspects of the startup’s long-term culture and identity. I listen for founders who express enthusiasm for the work that the other people on the team are doing. Team cohesiveness matters.
  3. Create and maintain rituals:  For example, does every team member understand what would get existing customers/users to become more engaged with the product, and reduce churn? Does every team member know what needs to happen for the startup to increase its growth enough to get to the next funding milestone? Does the founder have a firm grasp on the startups key performance indicators? Has the team chosen the right indicators to focus on at this stage?
  4. Focus on finding product/market fit: A startup that fails to find product/market fit is doomed. Are the founders experimenting enough to find an ideal early market for the product, or are they stuck in a cycle of dogma regarding an initial point of market entry? What indications are there to help me ascertain the quality of their decision-making processes?
  5. Create systems of accountability: At the very early stage of a startup’s life the individuals on the team have an enormous impact on the organizational culture that eventually evolves. What steps are the founders taking to ensure that the early team has the right mix of people?
  6. Create a sales and marketing plan: What steps is the startup taking to create strong bonds with its earliest customers/users? Is anything being done to create a brand? Are the choices that have been made so far cost-effective and appropriate for the startup’s stage of maturity and its funding status?

Closing Thoughts The job of an early-stage technology startup founder is basically akin to that of a religious evangelist. The founder must recruit believers. Early team members join the cause because they believe in the founder and in the vision that the founder wishes to bring into reality. Early customers become believers because they have a problem they believe the startup’s envisioned product can solve. Early investors join the cause because they believe in the founder and believe that the startup can create the future reality that it describes during investment pitches. Basically, at the outset . . . Building a startup is exactly the same as creating a new religion.

 


  1. J. Useem and R. Useem. (1963). Human Organizations, 22(3). Page 169. See: The Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) “What is Culture?” http://www.carla.umn.edu/culture/definitions.html. Accessed Aug 29, 2015. 

  2. Adapted from: Richard-Hooker.com; Clifford Geertz, Emphasizing Interpretation 

  3. Clifford Geertz, Religion As A Cultural System. In: The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. Pp. 87 – 125. Fontana Press, 1993. 

  4. William E. Paden, Religious Worlds: The Comparative Study of Religion. 2nd edition. Pp. 51 – 161. Beacon Press, 1994. 

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