The Founder’s Dilemma: Why it’s Crucial to Build a Culture that’s Independent of the Founders

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Written by: Tobias Günther

Many startup founders and small business owners have a problem: their company’s culture is closely — almost inseparably — tied to them and their personalities.

This might not sound like a huge catastrophe at first. But it really is a serious problem, because…

  1. if they go on vacation, their culture is on vacation, too.
  2. if they decide to sell or otherwise leave the company, their culture leaves with them.
  3. if they try to grow the company, they will find that their culture is not ready for growth.

Items no. 1 and 2 on this list might not seem all that urgent; or perhaps far away.

But the third one comes to bite many founders sooner rather than later.

Let’s talk about why.

A Culture That Depends on Individuals is a Fragile Culture

This headline actually says it all: when a company’s culture depends on a single person, it’s inevitably a fragile culture.

This problem is so relevant and critical, and yet so few founders are aware of it. Why? Because in many cases, their companies’ cultures aren’t exactly “in shambles”; they aren’t full of conflict day in and day out. Their cultures might not be as good as they could (and should) be, but they are “okay”. This makes it hard to see that there indeed is a problem.

Typically, they only become aware of it when…

  • a) they experience a time of intense stress or higher workload: in these situations, the “stabilizing influence” they normally have on their own culture (consciously or, in most cases, unconsciously) isn’t in effect anymore. They have their heads in other topics.
  • b) they try to scale and grow the company: it’s a dangerous endeavor to add new people to a company when its culture is still mainly connected to a single individual. Because a single person, by definition, isn’t scalable. You cannot keep an eye on everything, cannot talk to everyone as often as you should, and cannot take care of everyone’s moods…

A company in such a state is extremely fragile!

The Power of a Stable Culture

When I sold my last company, I was a bit anxious: what would happen to this company — more precisely: to the team, the individuals, and its culture — after I left?

Many of the ideas that made its culture warm and welcoming on the one hand, but also productive and effective on the other hand, had come from my efforts in building it like this. Would this culture live on after I left?!?

More than two years after, I can confidently say “yes”: there was no flood of resignations (in fact, not a single person quit) and the organization is healthy and thriving!

If you build a culture the right way, it can last for a lifetime!

My next essay will explain how exactly you can build a company culture that doesn’t depend on its founders — and that’s ready for growth!

Make sure you’re signed up for my newsletter so you don’t miss it.

Take care,

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