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Case Analysis: The Startup DNA

The culture of the company, if not defined by the leaders, will define itself

Photo Credit : Bivash Banerjee


The beauty of organic flows are that they grow, either well tended or wild – but grow they will. This is true for human behaviour too. The culture of the company if not defined by leaders, will define itself. And Kaizad learns this insight from his investigation into the crumbly Prime Rib Steak JO delivered to Sanjeev. Behaviours, in a company, if not nurtured correctly can become destructive for all.  For startup founders, like Kaizad, working on culture sounds esoteric when chasing survival. Remember, taming a jungle is tough, nurturing it from the start a much easier task!

Founders, who are very good at tending the culture in their companies, report significant business success, too. Two instances come to mind, Yogesh Mahansaria of Alliance Tire Group (ATG) and Phanindra Sama, Redbus. They reached out to get clarity on the HR philosophy they wanted practiced in their freshly minted companies even before the first employee was on-boarded. With Sama, it was a discussion on organisation building and how to ingrain the HR philosophy of choice at Redbus. Mahansaria was more specific: how to build a performance focused workplace with high people productivity at ATG. They were both investing time on thinking through what behaviours they would like embedded in the psyche of their company. What both were really doing was securing a successful tomorrow for their companies by deciding the people stances they should take today. Engineering the DNA of their companies to a plan!

There are big learnings in failure too, and a startup in the food space – let’s call the company PCM – is hurtling along much like Uber. A toxic and dysfunctional work environment was allowed to prevail at Uber by its leader Travis Kalanick. Business results were great and customers happy with Uber services but damaging “people” issues were out in the public domain. The Board had to face the question: What has Uber become? PCM faces a similar moment of truth. PCM has a food product for every day consumption, is growing aggressively and its business is thriving. There is one sore point that sticks out – significantly higher shrinkage levels are reported from all distribution and production centres. A deep dive revealed this high loss of product was due to their own employees. It showed why some PCM employees did not see this as a major trust violation. In their view, cutting corners was part of the company fibre. The founder CEO frequently renegaded on commitments and many had to suffer for his sliding values. In the employees’ view, that somewhere justified their breach of trust.

Disengagement of employees can have many reasons and only one impact – business losses.  Weeding out “bad” habits and fixing culture and consciousness is tough and takes a big toll on organisation energies. Better to get it first time right! Entrench the core operating principles in team consciousness early in the startup journey. Give clarity to everyone on “how we do things here” and align them to a common purpose. Sharing of purpose, connects all stakeholders, and charges them to take ownership of outcomes not just follow rules.

Founders focus energies on many aspects of business sustainability, leaving the people and culture dimension for later. That can be a high risk strategy as Kalanick learnt and Kaizad is getting an early view of. To enable JO to grow well, attention is required on laying a strong foundation of practices and behaviours for every single employee be it in the kitchen, delivery, purchase or finance. And this is where Kaizad could do with the help of an HR leader. Someone whose job will be to entrench the JO credo deeper in every team member, by ensuring the right wins are celebrated, great results rewarded and fair work environment delivered. HR will also help keep the organisation honest to its values and beliefs. Business exigencies might take precedence for managers but HR will be there to show the mirror and keep JO true to its stated beliefs. The best insurance for keeping JO out of any public domain bashing incidents too, in today’s troll dominated digital world!  

The writer is an HR practitioner, entrepreneur, talent advisor, people observer and traveller. She is the founder of The HR Practice, The Search Practice

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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startups case study case analysis magazine 19 August 2017

Anu Sharma

The writer is an HR practitioner, entrepreneur, talent advisor, people observer and traveller. She is the founder of The HR Practice, The Search Practice

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