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Advice for start-ups looking to build a workplace culture

District-based media company employees. Company chief executive Anton Gelman says that a start-up’s earliest hires are the most important for getting the right office culture. (Anton Gelman/ Gelman/

The leader of a start-up has a long list of things to build: Investors, revenue and a customer base, to name a few.

And perhaps just as importantly, each of these businesses must also create from scratch something less measurable and less tangible: A workplace culture. Entrepreneurs have to try to define what kind of employer they’re going to be, and then figure out how to set that tone from their earliest days.

Here, local entrepreneurs working out of District start-up hub 1776 share their tips for what works and what doesn’t when it comes to developing an office culture:

Select the right people in the first place: “It’s really kind of screening both for the right skill set as well as for the right attitude,” said Blake Hall, a first-time entrepreneur who heads ID.Me., a digital identity company based in Tysons Corner that conducts some business out of 1776.

Hall’s firm, which was originally named TroopSwap and was focused on daily deals for the military community, initially hired some executives from more established firms. They looked good on paper, Hall said, but ultimately didn’t fit in the high-risk, high-reward environment of a nascent company.

Since those misfires, Hall said he’s been “a lot more careful about the people that we brought on.”

Anton Gelman, chief executive of media marketplace, agreed that the earliest hires are the most important.

“The first four or five people will set your culture for you,” he said, so you want to make sure they understand and exhibit the values you hope the rest of your staff will one day embody.

Don’t make it complicated. Dan Berger, chairman and chief executive of event software firm Social Tables, said his experience with a previous employer shaped how he approached building his own workplace culture.

“I remember at Booz Allen, there were so many cultural pillars. I couldn’t even name them all,” Berger said.

So at Social Tables, he decided to keep it simple. In the company’s earliest days, Berger brought his team together and shut them in a meeting room for two hours to figure out what kind of place they wanted their office to be. On a white board, they scratched out a list of about three dozen attributes they valued, eventually narrowing it to four key phrases that they felt best captured the ideas. (Examples of those tenets include “Fail fast and often” and “Ship all day, party all night.”)

Gelman warned against overly formalizing the process.

When he tried to write up extensive guidelines about company culture, “I noticed people didn’t really read them. I didn’t even read them,” Gelman said.

So instead of ginning up a complex policy, Gelman is more focused on trying to set the tone for his seven-person team by example.

Mine the power of one-one-interactions. Gelman has found it helpful to bring new hires along with him to faraway events or conferences. He said these trips allow the new employee to get a better sense of his work style and the company’s culture.

“It’s basically, ‘this is how we do things, this is why we do things, and you’re with me 24/7,’ so you can see that happen,” Gelman said.

Before ID.Me pivoted away from a daily deals model, Hall said he hit a rough patch when it came to company culture.

“It wasn’t a business model that made them happy, and I think that sapped the morale of the company for a number of months,” Hall said.

The key to surviving that, Hall said, was being transparent with employees and having plenty of one-on-one sessions with senior leaders to keep them engaged.

Acknowledge that some activities might end up being difficult to scale. A year ago, Social Tables had daily meetings in which each team member discussed what he or she was working on. It may have helped foster teamwork, but Berger said it became unsustainable.

“When you’re at 22 employees, you can’t do that,” he said.

Berger first trimmed that meeting to twice a week, and now it’s only once a week.

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economic news.



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