Saturday, June 29, 2024

Founders Forming Startup Cultures: Why Atypical Cultures Transfer Better

When a new venture is founded, does the founder create the culture? Much rhetoric from the founders of high-tech firms suggests they do – some even post manuals of the firm culture for others to admire and copy. But coming to think of it, the founders might be influential but still not important in the end. In any firm that scales the founder quickly becomes a small minority, and employees form the culture too.

So, which is it? That is the question answered in research by Yeonsin Ahn and me published in Organization Science. We looked at the cultures of information technology firms listed in Crunchbase and used descriptions of the firms at Glassdoor as data to do a linguistic analysis of their cultures. That way, we could compare the cultures of any firm, and we went on to detect how much the new venture culture was related to the culture of the previous employer of the founder. That’s because founders typically carry along the culture of their employer even when they try to create something new.

What did we discover? New venture cultures, on average, do not show much trace of the founder creating the culture. The keyword here is “on average” because the exceptions are very interesting. The first is atypicality. There is a wide range of organizational cultures also in technology firms, and there is a mix of more-or-less typical organizational cultures along with more atypical organizational cultures. Do employees like atypical cultures? That is hard to tell, but we know from the data that founders could more easily transfer atypical cultures than typical ones. Most likely this is because atypical cultures are more distinct, so employees can more easily notice the culture that the founder is used to and likes, and they can copy it.

Are there any other interesting effects? Yes, we made one more discovery. In general, cultures are not necessarily congruent – they contain internal contradictions that cannot be resolved, but instead lead to compromised or case-by-case choices. This is true of culture in general, and also of organizational cultures. We found that congruent cultures transferred more easily, again indicating that ease of learning the founder’s organizational culture makes the founder more influential.

So founders can create organizational cultures under the right conditions. The culture needs to be atypical enough to be recognized, and congruent enough to be easy to learn. A simple answer to a complicated question.

Ahn Yeonsin and Henrich R. Greve. 2024. Cultural Spawning: Founders Bringing Organizational Cultures to Their Startup. Organization Science, forthcoming.