Do startups need company values from the start?

Company values are front and center at so many organizations. But as a startup, are they really necessary? From my experience at our startup, I think there's something far more important.

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startups don't need company values

Recently, I read an article by Thomas Honoré, CEO of Columbus A/S, about company values and how they are often promoted with large pictures and words in the reception areas in company offices. Often the management or even external consultants formulate them.

Hhowever, even with the best of intentions, Thomas notes that there is at least one challenge to consider when companies are in the process of formulating core values:

Habits always win out over values.

His contention is that if you want to change the values in your company, you need to change the habits (how they act and react, often subconsciously) of the employees.

After reading the article, I took a moment and reflected a bit upon it.

In my previous career, I worked with formulating values together with the management team, but I have also once witnessed being summoned by the corporate organization, when working in a large company, to the big auditorium to be presented with the new company values. An external consultant was hired to present and tell the story.

In the moment it all made sense. We were all handed a nice book that explained everything in detail. We even got a new pencil that was supposed to be the visual identity of who we were (I know; it sounds weird, but it was totally in line with the story at the time). However, after a day or two, the book was put in the drawer together with the pencil, and we didn’t really think much about it afterward.

When reading Thomas’s article, it struck me that working in a startup company, as I do now, we don’t really have formulated company values – and it also seems like, at least from my viewpoint, that there aren’t any bad habits just yet.

However, it also got me thinking; do we really need company values? I mean company values that are formulated and officially communicated internally and externally. At this stage, I don’t think so.

With the risk of getting in bad standing with several consultants, I dare say that I think it is much more important, especially for startups, to watch management “walk the talk” instead of making high profile company value campaigns.

On a daily basis, we are inspired and motivated by the actions of our co-founders. How they act and react is much more important, as their behavior reflects upon all of us. And perhaps that is worth noting when you start your own company and start hiring people.

There is nothing like a founder’s enthusiasm.

If you are passionate about your idea, product, and business, that itself will have a positive effect on everybody around you. And they might start acting the same way as you.

To give you an example, our CEO always goes the extra mile for our customers. He tells stories about our customers and what he did to bring them on board. He also shares e-mails from customers who are happy with our solution and our fantastic customer service (to quote a customer), which are quite exceptional.

In this way, he shows us what great customer service is all about, and it makes everyone want to do the same: Wanting to go the extra mile to make sure our company continues to succeed. And in my world, that is much more valuable than a “corporate” value hanging on the wall saying “We treat our customers and each other well” (which, by the way, is a value that I guess no one would argue against and could be used everywhere).

But the question remains: would you live it out if it was just a written statement?

Another example from just last week is when our CTO invited everyone to a brainstorming session in order to innovate our solution even further. Innovation is important for any company, and innovation should not only be reserved for a small crowd of employees – as innovation and new initiatives in my book should be ‘normal’ company culture.

By doing this, he showed us that innovation is clearly prioritized (since he invited all employees) and something we should think about in our daily work. Again, much more efficient than having a company value hanging on the wall saying: “Through innovation we create results”. In this context, the motivation never stops. We are constantly reminded of the necessity to evaluate and rethink the status quo. We are not only reminded, but we also watch our co-founders do the same.

These examples are of course merely small gestures of how the founders at Queue-it try to influence employees to act in a certain way, but I am pretty sure that it is much more valuable for our young company to have management show the way instead of having formulated company values that no one really notices anyway.

At this stage of our company, I would much rather spend time working with core business values, such as our external values, and how to communicate those by having the right communication platform in place, etc.

If I were a founder of a startup, I would definitely focus on external business values first. Not that internal values are not important, because they are, but they need to be acted out by the founders first for several years in order for them to become “real” and not just something which is formulated and passed around to new employees who didn’t happen to be there when the values were first implemented.

Camilla Ley Valentin, Queue-it co-founder & CCO

About the author
Camilla Ley Valentin is co-founder and Chief Communications Officer of Queue-it. She has been recognized as one of the top 50 most inspiring women in European tech, among other leadership awards. Camilla holds several board and advisory board positions with other technology companies.