How to create your startup culture through company values

It turned out to be his final aha moment. At work in New Delhi, Solease CEO and co-founder Pierre Vermeulen witnessed a regional director, late at night, at his desk. The man’s desk covered in cans of sardines, because of all the evenings he spent at the office. Never taking a break from work. “There I was, in the most polluting city in the world. With my wife and newborn. I had to choose. I could end up like that guy, or I could contribute to something that would make the world a better place for my kids.”

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The experience taught Vermeulen that to build a company meant to focus on personal motivation and being able to scale your vision. “The director had chosen to create value for himself, not for the greater good, which was fine for him, but I wanted to do things differently. And I wanted my team to do things differently,” Vermeulen says. People are motivated for different reasons to make decisions and take action. Over the course of growing Solease to a team of 65, from 35 one year ago, Vermeulen has become an advocate of company values to bind your team and to make sure they run for the same goal.

Vermeulen explains his vision on company values and startup culture by sharing examples from different stages of Solease’s life cycle. Specifically, he deconstructed his efforts into three parts: it starts with you, it grows with your team, it scales with your partners. Any founder that has been told to focus on startup culture, but has encountered more questions than answers will find support and recognition through Vermeulen’s experiences and practical advice.

It starts with you

Everything starts with an individual motives: even when you are driven by much larger goals like speeding up the energy transition. For example, Vermeulen realizes “in sustainability, acquiring customers is not about eco motives, but about ego motives. Only a few will be interested when you talk to them in terms like sustainability. But when you tell them the return of interest on solar panels is 50 times the interest they get from savings on their bank account, people tend to listen. The exact same thing is happening to the electric car. It will not take over because it’s better for the planet, but because it’s cheaper per kilometer.”

Getting to that point, however, requires personal motivation, so tightly integrated into your core being, that it’s strong enough to ignore all the naysayers – you’ve got to have a blind faith in how to do things differently. “I believe, with every inch of my body, that the energy transition will happen. The US might try to slow it down, but it cannot be stopped. Politicians might not feel a sense of urgency, but it cannot be stopped. And as a father of 2, I feel the responsibility to speed up the process.”

Then, the best way to make a change is, according to Vermeulen, “to start a business. It’s the perfect combination of working on your personal goals and offering a financial return of investment for your customers. It challenges you to do more with less or limited resources. Basically it means that you have to think from a sustainable perspective.”

The reason why you want things to be different will probably not be similar to Vermeulen’s, but it’s critical to think about it before you bring in others and your company is well under way. “When you’re at a point when you start to grow and you’re focused on attracting and retaining talent and partners, without turning into an oil tanker yourself, you are at a moment in time when your personal motives and company values really start to make a difference.”

It grows with your team

There is no secret sauce to deciding if your co-founder is a good fit for your team. Either someone shares your values, or they don’t. “I bothered my wife with business plans for years. Over and over,” Vermeulen says. “And every time she responded in variations of these 3 ways: it can’t be done, this already exists, you don’t know anything about any of this. But when I explained my plans for Solease, she decided she wanted to be a part of it. Instantly.”

When your company grows and you need to hire, look for those who believe in your dreams, not just for those who own the necessary skills. “We’ve hired A players who didn’t share our enthusiasm for sustainability, and have had to say goodbye to them. It just doesn’t work out. But when team members join, not yet ready for a specific role, but who do believe, they will run the hardest to catch up and get to that point as quickly as possible.”

Then when someone’s on board, make sure they understand why you’re doing this. “Sit down with new hires personally to find out how they found you and why they’ve chosen to work for you. Not only will you get to know everyone, but you will also get a chance to make sure everyone’s on the same page.”

Vermeulen’s favorite guidelines on how to do this, come from Verne Harnish’s bestseller Scaling Up. One of they key lessons describes how company values and living them on a daily basis aligns everyone’s goals. “Imagine a school with a playground, next to a busy street. Of course, you want the children to stay as far away from the street as possible. You want them to be safe. So, what do you do? You can tell the kids to not run towards the street, which you’ll probably have to repeat every so and so minutes. It might make more sense to put a fence around them, so they can do whatever they want, as long as they stay within the parameters of the playground.”

Company values are similar to that fence, according to Vermeulen. “With strong and clear values, you don’t have to worry about your team wandering of or breaking the rules. The values give them the freedom to do whatever they feel is necessary to reach those goals.”

Here are Solease’s values

Sustainability – Speaks for itself
Openness – Everything is shared unless there are strong reasons not to.
Fun – Work needs to be fun.
Individuality – Everyone is welcome.

(Fun fact: Solease’s company values form the abbreviation DOPE in Dutch. Duurzaam (sustainability), open, plezier (fun), eigenheid (individuality). Solease’s values are supplemented with business countervalues.

Sustainable results – You must achieve financial results.
Open action – Just do it. Test it. Make it happen.
Professional fun – Have fun, but do it in a professional way.
Individuality in a team – There is a place for everyone, but do work together.

When you’ve chosen your company values, communicate them. Not just internally, but also externally. “For younger generations especially, having and living a purpose, is a major reason to join or stay away from a company. Are you building a place where they can live up to their personal purpose? The ultimate compliment, you as a founder can get from your team, is that they are recommending friends to join. Then you know your values match and you are running for the same goals, together.”

It scales with your partners

If companies work so diligently to articulate and live their values, it’s easy to see how they will benefit an organization. “Especially thanks to younger generations, purely shareholder focused companies will no longer exist in the near future. Companies without a purpose will be a thing of the past. We can no longer take whatever we need and utilize these resources for profitability.”

Fighting the status quo requires startups to do two things, according to Vermeulen.

1.Think long term, in generations even, but don’t wait for others to do it for you. Act!”

2.Consider incumbents. Those who benefit the most from the status quo will put up a fight. But even though they can slow it down, they will not be able to completely stop any transition. Make it your ambition that incumbents want to partner up with you. You will not reach your goals by making enemies. You have to get everyone on board. Both customers and partners. Both potential and current employees.”