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Startup cultures nurtured by founders

At the heart of a successful organisation is people, and with the right culture, a founder can bring people together to meet daunting challenges head-on.

Culture shows up in various ways – the priorities leaders set, the values they prize and the principles they follow. In this article, we take a look at three founders and the different cultures they developed in their respective startups.

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Where you can find a culture of caring and happiness

A culture of “caring and happiness” is a surprisingly warm and fuzzy one for a tech company, but it is precisely this kind of culture that won Zoom founder and CEO Eric Yuan the No.1 spot at career and recruiting site Glassdoor’s Employees’ Choice Awards honouring top CEOs in 2018.

Yuan has built a strong track record of building and leading teams. Born and raised in China, he arrived in Silicon Valley in 1997 and joined WebEx when it was still a small company. In 2007, Cisco acquired WebEx and Yuan became VP of engineering in charge of collaboration software. Over his 14 years at WebEx, he grew the engineering team from 10 to 800 and increased its revenue from zero to over $800 million. When he struck out on his own to found Zoom in 2011, 40 engineers followed him.

In an episode of GGV Capital’s Evolving for the Next Billion podcast, Yuan discusses the culture of caring and happiness he nurtures at the communications technology company.

“For me as a CEO, my number one priority is to make sure I have a good culture, really focus on employee happiness, and really care about our employees. Ultimately, if our employees, if we are happy, our customers will be happy,” he says.

He refers to care as caring about a community, caring about a customer, caring about a product, caring about teammates and caring about oneself. 

One concrete step he takes to strengthen culture is to carefully hire people who can fit in very well. “Normally, we don’t only look at those employees with great experience, great education and background; we really focus on self-motivation and a self-learning mentality,” he says. 

“Quite often you want to hire maybe a head of a department, or you want to hire some VP level from other companies. That is not our style. We want to hire those people who can grow themselves along with our company’s growth,” he adds.

He says other concrete steps include emphasising hard work, open communication, keeping everything transparent, and sharing with the team.

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Where Indonesian culture shines through

In an interview in 2020, Achmad Zaky, founder and then CEO of Bukalapak, one of Indonesia’s largest e-commerce platforms, recalls how it was like to build a startup in Indonesia. 

“Indonesia’s local culture is vastly different from other Asian or Southeast Asian countries. You must first embrace Indonesian culture; I think that’s very important,” he says, explaining that was one reason that Bukalapak had very local campaigns. 

“You might not understand that (the campaigns) if you’re not Indonesian because it’s that local. But that’s why everyone loves our brand because it’s homegrown and very close to their hearts. The community we have created is very hard for foreign players to replicate,” he notes.

One key attribute of Bukalapak’s culture that has helped it succeed, Achmad says, is Gotong Royong, an Indonesian term popularised by the first president of Indonesia.

“It describes the general culture of Indonesia. Indonesia is a very social country; we are like a giant family. What that means is that we cannot survive in isolation. We have to work with others and enable a multiplier effect. So working together, hand-in-hand, with the whole team, is very important,” Achmad says.

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Where a culture of boldness evolved

Binny Bansal, the co-founder of Indian e-commerce company Flipkart, used to go door-to-door delivering books for the startup, which grew and grew and was eventually sold to Walmart in 2017 for $16 billion. Binny now lends his expertise and insight to other startups.

In an episode of Evolving for the Next Billion, Binny shares that he doesn’t think they went out to enable a culture that helped Flipkart stay ahead of the competition. “It was more a natural evolution,” he says.

They didn’t get everything right, but they did get the important things right. Binny cites an example:

“Back when Flipkart was dipping into e-commerce, there was a complete lack of talent in the e-commerce sector. And there was no one with startup experience. Instinctively, our strategy was to hire people with great potential and intrinsic value and put them on the most difficult problems. It was kind of a sink or swim strategy.”

Looking back, he believes that the move helped the company succeed. “Since e-commerce was a new market, everybody was doing it for the first time. It was constantly okay to take big bets and fail, but you had to think out of the box. One had to be audacious and avoid doing things the traditional way,” he says.

As a result, being bold and changing the paradigm became important tenets in Flipkart, he says. Next to these was putting the customer at the centre of the business.

“NPS (net promoter score) was the most important metric across the company. At every meeting, we started with reviewing NPS first and everything else later. By getting these things right, we solidified our principles and created Flipkart’s culture,” he notes.

Whether you define your company culture from day one, take strength from the culture prevailing in your market, or come across the right culture as you go along, these stories from founders highlight why paying attention to culture is vital for leaders.

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