How to build a company culture: advice for startups from culture designers Kymono

9 min read
06 Dec 2019

s the modern workplace continues to evolve, companies are having to imagine new ways to attract and retain quality talent. We sat down with Paris-based culture designers Kymono to discuss how having a strong company culture is fundamental to securing – and keeping – new hires. 

When many of us think of a desirable workplace, we probably conjure up the following images: comfy swivel chairs, meeting rooms adorned with plants, a kitchen well stocked with fruit and coffee and maybe even a ping-pong table. 

But building a comfortable working environment is about so much more than aesthetics. It’s about creating a culture that all employees want to be a part of. 

“Culture and identity are crucial to a startup’s success,” Inès Sánchez-Castillo Velge, Head of International Expansion at Kymono, told Startup Guide. “However, company culture isn’t something that you can impose; it’s something that’s implied, and it’s something that comes from everyone in your team.”

So, what is company culture?

Company culture is a term that is often bandied about in the startup world, and it’s something that Paris-based collective, Kymono, are experts on. As self-described ‘culture designers,’ Kymono create outfits for startup and corporate teams that express their personality and represent their values. 

The idea is to help companies create a strong brand that their employees and customers can relate to, as Inès explains: “Building a company culture is about creating a sense of belonging. Kymono makes this tangible for companies by designing outfits that make their team feel unified.”

By Kymono’s definition, company culture is a combination of all the habits, rituals and traditions of a company, as well as its belief systems. It’s an expression of what a company is all about. 

Why is company culture important?

In recent years, the talent market has evolved in such a way that it is now up to companies to make themselves attractive for employees. As such, startups with a strong company culture will find themselves more likely to “attract and retain exceptional talent,” which is one of the “biggest challenges companies face today,” according to Inès.

Building a company culture is about creating a sense of belonging

It’s true that young people are demanding more from their workplaces. Research shows that millennials are increasingly searching for jobs that will welcome their diverse perspectives, offer them flexible working hours and give them a sense of purpose in their work. 

Indeed, according to LinkedIn’s 2018 Workplace Culture report, professionals said that factors such as work-life balance and a team culture that inspires people to be themselves mattered more to employees than perks such as free food and office games rooms. Moreover, the same report revealed that 71 percent of professionals would consider taking a pay cut to work for a company whose mission and values align with their own. 

So, how can companies foster a workplace culture that attracts employees and makes them want to stick around for the long haul? Here’s Kymono’s advice on how to encourage a strong workplace culture.

Find your values (and write them down!)

As many founders will tell you, building a company culture doesn’t simply happen overnight. In fact, it’s something that grows organically.

When Kymono first started out in Paris in 2017, the founders didn’t think the company would scale so fast. Before they knew it, they had a team of 15 people and were eyeing up expansion to new locations in Europe. Amidst all the excitement, the team at Kymono celebrated small milestones, took trips away together and quickly established a strong bond. They had, implicitly, created a culture.

Kymono's cofounder and CEO, Olivier Ramel, says that company culture is key to a happy workforce.

At the time, this wasn’t something that the founders felt like they needed to define – especially on paper. It wasn’t until they welcomed a number of new, bright-eyed employees to the team – who wanted to know what the company was all about – that they decided to reconsider. 

“From the very beginning, a company’s culture is shaped by the personalities, experiences and decisions of the people who started the business,” says Inès. “Founders are the incarnation of the company’s values: they are the ones that have to set the tone.”

So, cofounders Olivier Ramel and Hugo Bentz developed a list of their values into a manifesto to give their new recruits an authentic impression of Kymono’s aims and expectations.

Founders are the incarnation of the company’s values: they are the ones that have to set the tone

This wasn’t an easy process, according to Inès. “It’s often difficult to put intangible things like values into words. But the important thing for startups to remember is not to overthink it. Just consider what’s important to you and start with that.”

As a rule of thumb, startup founders seeking to define their values should dig deep into the roots of why they started their business and then, together with their team, outline what the company’s vision is. 

Putting pen to paper can also help with the process. This doesn’t mean you have to produce a grandiose document. Simply defining what’s important to your company can help new employees assimilate with your mission. 

Hire for ‘culture fit’

Fostering a strong team ethic is essential to creating a company culture – which is why it’s important to hire the right people. 

Of course, the idea of the perfect candidate will differ from company to company. For Kymono, the attributes of energy, open-mindedness and trustworthiness take precedence over any impressive résumé. 

“We don’t care much about a candidate’s academic history, we look more into who they are as a person,” says Inès. “We don’t hire people based on money, prestige or position; we just want ambitious, high-potential people who will fit in with the Kymono family.” 

When it comes to the hiring process, there’s no written rulebook for how to go about this. Most of the time, you just have to “trust your gut feeling,” according to Inès. “You develop an impression of a person within the first ten minutes of an interview. We know instantly if someone is the right fit.”

Invest time in your team

One of the biggest challenges companies face when it comes to building a team culture is finding time to dedicate to out-of-office activities. If startups want to maintain happy employees, it’s important for them to make room in their busy schedules for fun and relaxation.

“By definition, startups are fast-paced and often quite intense environments. To find relief from this intensity during work hours, you have to de-stress together and do fun things. Otherwise, you’ll all just burn out,” says Inès.

One way early-stage companies can keep motivation high is through team-building activities. Every year, Kymono organizes two weekends away for the whole team – one weekend at the beach and one weekend at a ski resort – to boost morale and give their employees some much-needed headspace. 

So, how can you test the waters during an interview to see if a candidate will suit your culture? Try throwing in an unusual bonus question. For example, Inès likes to ask: “What uncomfortable or embarrassing situation have you been in?”

Not only can questions like these loosen up the formal atmosphere of an interview, but they can also give companies a greater understanding of the person they have in front of them.

“Asking about embarrassing situations has a more personal feel than just talking about superficial things like skills,” says Inès. “The way potential hires react to this question is also a testament to how they will handle certain situations at work.”

Another important consideration for a strong, effective team is hiring for diversity. If founders recruit similar people with similar attributes, a company’s culture risks becoming too homogenous. “You want a range of people who will bring a fresh perspective to your startup,” says Inès.

Kymono creates outfits for startups to help their employees and customers identify with their values.

Of course, organizing team activities can be a costly and time-consuming process, but there are ways to do it that won’t break the bank. In Kymono’s book, team-building is necessary for the general functioning of a company and should be a key priority in a company’s overall budgeting.

“A good way to get everyone involved is to have each person on your team pick an activity. At Kymono, we have a document where everyone pitches their ideas and then the management team selects one,” says Inès. “Everything is kept a secret, which also brings a kind of thrill to the whole thing.”

Kymono recently took themselves off to a beer factory. Each team member made their own beer, customized their own labels and left the brewery a little more wobbly than they’d entered. “It was cool, as it gave us an occasion to be all together away from work,” says Inès.

Reinforce your culture at every opportunity 

So, how can fast-growing companies that have established their values, created traditions and hired the best people for their team preserve their culture as they grow? 

“To me, the most important thing, and it goes above anything else, is trust,” says Inès. “The only way you can build trust is by continuing to spend time with your team, even as the company gets bigger.”

Finding a way to reinforce your culture on a daily basis is essential to keeping it alive as your company grows – and this doesn’t have to come with a huge price tag. 

Kymono like to incorporate their values into their daily business practices by using language and symbols that resonate with their team. “For us, company culture is all about the way you communicate. When we talk about Kymono employees, we call ourselves ninjas,” says Inès. “This aligns with our idea of our team members being humble warriors with a cool attitude and a heart of gold.”

It’s about creating an inclusive environment that nurtures your employees, allows you to grow together as a team and helps you achieve your business aims

This isn’t to say that every startup needs a secret code language. Rather, having daily company rituals – such as a Slack channel where employees can post funny memes and inspiring articles or a community whiteboard where people can write down their ideas – can maintain a strong community vibe within a growing team.

Inès says that company culture ultimately boils down to what your company’s goals are: “It’s about creating an inclusive environment that nurtures your employees, allows you to grow together as a team and helps you achieve your business aims.” 

But company culture isn’t so much a concept as it is a practice. Companies have to find ways of living out their values on a daily basis, which can, in turn, help them attract and retain the best people. As famous thought leader and entrepreneur Simon Sinek says in his book Start With Why: “Your company doesn’t have a culture. It is a culture.”

All photos provided by Kymono