Importance of employee culture in Indian startups

What drives a good culture among employees? This article explains why a strong ecosystem to drive great employee culture is equally important as product building, sales, marketing or any other function within a startup.
Written by Srinivas Kulkarni, Contributor

A lot of my blogs so far have covered startup stories of various product or service-based companies and what they aspire to achieve. Today I'm writing this post as somebody who has been an integral part of a few startups as an employee.

I'll explain why and how creating a strong ecosystem to drive great employee culture is equally important as product building, sales, marketing or any other function within any startup.

Geography matters

If you are a startup anywhere in India you are certainly different from a similar one in say Mountain View. That's a given. So why stick to some things that work a certain way in the United States when they are clearly different in terms of fundamental values in India. The overall aspects of our thought process, and the way we function out here in India is what makes that difference.

I have stated this before and I do it even now. Yes, as the startup ecosystem in India keeps flourishing, one of the major advantages we have is the learning and mentoring we get from various other cultures across the world. Not just from the Valley or any other locations in the United States, but generally there is a lot of learning that most entrepreneurs go through while coming up with a startup in India. Simply mirroring those learnings however is not so easy, neither is it really the core aspect while one is building a startup in India. There are so many learnings in the Indian business community, that will actually drive greater profits than the way you would learning from the valley entrepreneurs. 

I'm sure many would also agree to the fact that, there are a lot of other factors that entrepreneurs have to take into consideration while dealing with employees in India. While recruiting and hiring would certainly be a very important aspect while forming your initial team it is equally important to realize that setting up a culture that has its own individuality to itself and not just going with the standard practices that exist worldwide is an important lesson. One that many Founders and entrepreneurs would rely on, especially having established startups in India. 

Understand values, understand people

While a lot of things that drive Indian startups would be similar in terms of the functionality aspects, a lot of Indian startups have a flavour and an essence that gives it the Indian touch and founders don't dread to adopt that in the bargain of not worrying about globalizing or making the reach of their product larger.

That's a very good aspect while you are considering a niche market or for that matter focusing on domestic markets. So it makes equal sense to adopt the same to what works for your people. Don't enforce and impose upon your employees, structures, standards, processes that don't really fit the scheme of things within our culture in India.

Understand within your organization what fits best and then go with the flow. Of course if they are fundamentals, one doesn't need to really worry  about it, but if they are some aspects that don't resonate with what the culture is out here, then don't force fit it. Yes, a lot of startups in India comprise of the youth, so it helps anyways. But whatever it is just go with the flow. 

Art of Jugaad (Frugal Innovation)

As entrepreneurs, we all love this concept and it is very popular within India. A lot of times this is enforced by many cultures, but more so in India. Jugaad generally refers to a creative or innovative idea providing a quick, alternative fix while solving a problem. It  actually means an improvised arrangement or a workaround a lot of times only because of lack of resources. For an Indian entrepreneur, this is a lifeline.

And a lot of them prefer to even hire a lot of employees who are driven by this philosophy and can get the job done, no matter what it takes. So it's always good if you have a set of employees who are of that thought process. But one of the things I've seen in the past is that there are a lot of frictions when there is a lack of balance in this aspect.

Essentially too much of jugaad is not really good. One does need to ensure that there is a balance maintained between focusing on really creating some art and investing the right approach rather than just being "frugal".

Flexibility vs Processes

Yes being in a startup gives you that advantage of driving performance with flexibility and leeway in terms of work processes.

Let the hours that they work depend on their work. Encourage the "Fish" philosophy among your employees. For those who don't know what the FISH! Philosophy is, it's a set of work life practices created by ChartHouse Learning, commonly used to improve what is referred to as the "culture" of an organization. The concepts were inspired by the work culture at Seattle's Pike Place Fish Market where all the employees of the fish market follow the four practices (Be There, Play, Make Their Day and Choose Your Attitude) in a very interesting manner.

The rules and policies are good in the appointment letter. But the default culture will be set by how founders and key employees dress and work.

Also about dress code, I don't think it really drives how they work. So it's always a good idea to leave it alone, at least till the time you are in the growing stage. At a later stage, processes will help you automate a lot and certainly make life better, but in the early stages, drive flexibility as it'll help create a better environment.

Employee Benefits

If you look at this aspect in comparison with a startup environment anywhere else in the world, let's say the U.S. even, you'd find a stark difference in the way people percieve employee benefits. One of the good things for founders is that a lot of the startup crowd is young and know how to manage their own security in terms of health, insurance and other benefits.

Also, in India, healthcare being cheaper it's generally factored out. To begin with, it isn't that much of an ordeal and it's always a good idea to provide whatever money they get in hand. Incentivising, appraisals and bonuses would add to the company.

Yes there may be key players who will demand and get stock options. But that's something founders would already consider anyway in the beginning before getting funding. A good thing about it is that culturewise, many folks do believe in cash rather than stocks. The flipside to it, is to getting out the most of them to actually increase your company's valuation by adding great team members and them helping build your product. 

Employees define culture

Last but not least, and very importantly, let employees be a part of your culture definition process. As cliche as it may sound, this is something that really helps drive your organization's culture, environment and how the company will shape up overall.

Of course the really good idea would be to create polls, surveys, 360 feedback processes, and etc. But looking at the simpler aspect of it have a small culture or events team who will handle these things in the organization. Have a talk with your employees once in a while, maybe a skip level as well at times. Brainstorm rather than just depending on data from surveys etc.

Let employees tell you how they want certain aspects of office culture to shape up. They'd feel good if you as a founder listened and interacted with them once in a while. Have a suggestion box that can help, keep it anyonymus as that certainly gives the best suggestions or results. 

Some of these things are certainly something you might come across as a founder, CEO or more importantly an employee in an Indian startup. Would love to hear from you if you have any additional thoughts on driving the culture aspects in an Indian startup.

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