What British startups can learn from Silicon Valley’s culture failure

The recent Google memo followed a string of scandals from Uber as well as an array of women opening up about their experiences of dealing with VCs in Silicon Valley.

These stories all paint a negative and ultimately toxic work environment, highlighting how many hugely successful businesses seem to be missing a big void right under their noses: company culture.

For those entrepreneurs and SME owners currently rolling their eyes at the very mention of this, there’s a reason why some of the best CEOs fret about their company culture and use it as a differentiator – because it matters.

It’s an aspect of your business that needs to be prioritised as, if you don’t get it right, it can have devastating effects now, and in the long run. Company culture is the invisible maker or breaker of all businesses. This is why it amazes me when I speak to some small business owners who suggest they’re “too small in size to need HR”. This isn’t true. Whether you have two employees or 200 – you’re doing HR by managing those people.

But company culture isn’t something that can be picked up two years down the line when you might have a bit more time on your hands. It’s something that requires your thought and time right now – at the start of your venture. And a word of warning: it’s a lot harder to change once established.

If you get it right at the start, you will forge a strong culture and ensure the vision of your company is maintained. After all, the first 20 or so hires establish your company culture, so you need to make them count!

How to maintain company culture?

Often businesses scale and grow in a short period of time. Although great news for investors and the business, it’s your company culture that can get neglected during this process. During company growth, mistakes can often occur. For example, you might hire someone you’re not 100% certain on, as they might be in the right place at the right time. With work demands piling up you say yes to supply the demand and don’t fully consider the bigger picture of whether or not they are the most suitable candidate.



Although tempting to fall into this trap, it’s only going to hamper you in the long run. Soon enough you’ll be back to square one looking for another hire – this time one that suits the organisation.

To maintain the breatheHR culture as we’re expanding, I make an effort to recognise individual efforts. When it was just the nine of us in the office it was easy for me to congratulate and praise people – but as we’ve grown and I’m in and out of the office, it can be harder to spot individual efforts.

It’s not just the hiring process you need to get down to a T, but also the office environment and creating a great place to work. And this experience is often led by an entrenched company culture and can include things like ‘lifestyle benefits’ or making time for social events. For instance, offering flexi-time working or working from home options can promote a healthier work/life balance and give employees a greater sense of freedom and trust.

Also, small gestures go a long way. For instance, ordering in breakfast on Monday which the team can enjoy together, or early finishes on a Friday. These are all easy ways to keep your people motivated. As numerous research suggests, happy employees really are productive employees.

Although to many the concept of company culture is fluffy and subjective, a number of tech titans have shown the aftermath of what happens when you don’t get it right. A strong new business pipeline and balancing cash flow are what keeps a business afloat but, although business owners have a lot to juggle, company culture really does need to be prioritised. Or you might find yourself being talk of the town, and not for a good reason.

Jonathan Richards, CEO at breatheHR