Culture Wars: Corporate Versus Start-Up

 In Culture, Innovation

For the last decade, it has felt as if society learns, evolves and changes its mind at a break-neck pace. The cultural standards of business are following suit—moving and changing so quickly that even the groundbreaking, twenty-first century concept of “industry disruption” sounds passé in 2018.

A definition we can all agree on

At the Corporate Alchemists, one of the questions we often get is “What is the business culture of today?” That’s a challenging question that cannot be answered with one pert answer. By “culture,” we mean the often-informal standards and values which influence a company’s internal and external actions. Culture is elusive to those outside it; it may even seem inconsistent with a company’s stated, formal objectives.


Culture effects major policy decisions, such as employee benefit packages and customer service expectations. But it trickles down to include small daily things, such as if workers leave early on Friday, or if a company celebrates co-workers’ birthdays.’s Encyclopedia defines culture as “a blend of the values, beliefs, taboos, symbols, rituals and myths all companies develop over time.”


Corporate culture is also broadly defined by “professionalism.” This predictable and non-controversial set of standards includes “work hours, personal space […] responsibilities and communications […] appearance and conduct,” creating a comfortably predictable culture which employees can agree to respect.

The push and pull of new and old

Business culture arouses much debate, with experts editorializing about what not to do as much as about what is recommended.


Today’s business culture is in a time of transition, especially as the cultural influence of young, start-up businesses gains traction, moving from fringe to mainstream. This movement is, necessarily, pushing some of what was previously considered “legitimate business culture” to the side. Businesses and workers benefit from considering advantages of both start-up and corporate, just as the debate of “specialist vs. generalist” usually ends with the agreement that both have value and should learn from each other.

Save what’s best from corporate culture

Corporate culture excels at stability and predictability. These aren’t “sexy” words, but they are crucial. For example, most employees want the reliable stability and predictability of a monthly paycheck that always clears on the day it’s issued. Start-up cultures that pride themselves on disruption would serve their workers best by predictably paying salaries regularly and on time. For consumers, stability and predictability mean that a product is consistently produced from one batch to the next, and service-staff honor long-term brand loyalty. As a result, consistency and predictability should be ingredients in every corporate culture, whether start‑up or established.

Learn from start-ups…and their mistakes

Start-up culture often fashions itself as more of a lifestyle than a workplace culture, where a handful of dedicated and ambitious entrepreneurs work long hours waiting together for their service or product to take off.


If they are fortunate enough for that to happen, start-up businesses may find problems in scaling their culture up. In fact, the big risk with start-ups (aside from never proving value in the first place) is this inability to scale. It can end up destroying both the culture and the business profitability. The challenge is that whatever makes them nimble and persuasive simply can’t work in the same way when six employees become sixty or six hundred. It is a common paradox that a successful start-up is unable to replicate the success at a larger level which it worked so hard to achieve.


However, the current debate of start-up versus corporate culture arises because a lot of what start-ups do is effective, benefiting internal and external company policies.


Start-ups can be culturally conscientious

To return to the earlier definition, culture is built “over time.” That means that a young start-up business is starting with a clean slate. Its founders can be thoughtful about how early actions will contribute to the business culture, immediately and in the long-term. They may have a greater willingness to debate about the cultural consequences of each choice, speaking with openness in a way that larger corporate cultures might consider to be stirring up trouble.


Because start-ups don’t have decades of cultural baggage, their values are likely to align with contemporary social values, which can help them connect with modern consumers. For example, a high-end clothing start-up might commit to using only green, sustainably sourced materials if its target consumers value “green business.” That same start-up culture might also commit to equitable, diverse hiring practices from day one. Both of these commitments are harder to make within a large, older company that has worked with different policies for fifty years.

Other popular possibilities in start-up culture

Because start-ups are small, their cultures benefit from everyone knowing what everyone else is doing. Person-to-person interaction is frequent and valued more than in large organizations which are burdened with layers of hierarchy and bureaucracy. Staff at young start-ups are likely to have easy access to the founder/CEO. Also, start-ups are agile, able to pivot nimbly because decisions go through few people and the company mission is (probably) still quite focused.

Which is best?

Neither. That is probably clear by now. The most important thing for any business person (especially business leaders) is to be aware of culture, to know that it affects every action and that every choice affects it. In fact, this is the one thing critics of both cultures agree on: be aware of your culture.


However, corporate and start-up cultures could learn a few tricks from each other. Start-ups can learn that regular professionalism might retain more workers than an unpredictable and casual work environment, and corporations should remember to keep their internal policies up-to-date with modern societal norms. This is especially true in the face of changing demographics in the workplace. Millennials are known to favor a corporate culture that blends work and life seamlessly, an in order to attract and retain that demographic, companies big and small would do well to examine their culture.


Externally, in consumer interactions, a corporate culture should be as careful and responsive to all hundred thousand clients as a start-up is when they have only fifty precious clients. A start-up, on the other hand, must take care that clients receive a consistent standard of care, even when the start-up may prefer to let workers each set his or her own personalized standards.

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