Why “Culture Fit” Means Nothing (And How Startups Can Hire Correctly)

Contrary to popular belief, I am convinced that looking specifically for “culture fits” is one of the biggest mistakes a tech startup can make.

With so many tech industry giants incessantly reiterating the importance of “culture fit,” it’s easy for startups to fall into that trap. In reality, the kind of people startups need is fundamentally different.

The corporate behemoths need employees who can fall in line—who fit right in, get along, and play nice with fellow employees. Startups, on the other hand, need employees who are more inspiring, more original and more impactful.

Hiring is the first thing young companies must get right when it comes to culture.

Culture Fit Has No Value

It’s easy for an employee to consume the culture at one of those big companies. Who doesn’t like to be paid well, have more freedom, and work alongside smart colleagues? Who doesn’t want to have great amenities? Who doesn’t want to work at a fast-growing company that helps them grow as well?

Smart startups realize they can easily find anyone off the street who will probably love to fit right in. But if they are not actively contributing, then they are draining the company culture. The mission and values of the company lose momentum, which leads to culture complacency and disintegration.

What specifically drains company culture depends on the company’s core values. Here at VideoAmp we clearly describe what culture draining behaviors are for us:

“If you are complacent, if you constantly hide who you really are in order to be liked, if you constantly worry about propriety rather than the task at hand, if you are a lone genius, if you have no opinions about anything, if you like to play politics, if you like to hoard secrets and power, if you have no passion for life, if you are not naturally curious, if you think you are entitled to the bounties of life or if you can’t laugh at yourself, you won’t succeed, and you’ll be miserable here.”

That kind of thinking helps a tech startup narrow down its candidates to a select few who can actually elevate the culture, rather than drain it. The realization—and acceptance—that you are not for everyone can change everything for a startup.

Instead of just looking for people who “fit,” you can search for people to elevate your game, bring new ideas to the table, make the collective whole stronger, and continually inspire your other employees. You’re looking for a person you can learn from, someone who pushes you outside your comfort zones, and has a strong work ethic that makes everyone else better.

Wanted: Culture Contributors

Let’s call this person a “culture contributor” rather than a culture consumer. The difference between them is a matter of magnitude.

Imagine a startup as a rocket that uses 90% of its fuel just to take off. Each employee is a part of the fuel that helps the rocket escape gravity. If you are not elevating the rocket, then you are dragging it down.

Every person you hire must elevate your culture.

What do these “culture contributors” bring to the table? Things you haven’t even thought of yet. That’s the beauty of someone who understands your culture and values; they can find and create new ways to elevate standards with your company culture and values in mind.

Culture contributors love what they do. You’ll see a lot of infectious smiles, positivity, and humor that spreads to those around them.

They won’t be afraid to question things that are misaligned with your culture and values, and to suggest growth opportunities when they see them. By their very example, culture contributors hold up a mirror and reflect what you’re doing right or not doing at all, day in and day out.

Finding  Culture Contributors

If you explicitly state your desire to hire culture contributors, and allow each candidate to express how they qualify as one, you will find those people who will help grow your company by expanding the culture rather than helping it stagnate.

First you need to share with them the following in order to support your quest:

  • Your intention to make sure that everyone who gets hired can use the company as a platform to get closer to their life purpose
  • Your company purpose, mission and core values
  • Your culture mission
  • Your specific initiatives that address each of your commitments

Then ask them the following  questions:

  1. How will you elevate our culture?
  2. How will  you inspire me or your team?
  3. Will your work ethic be stronger than our average employee?
  4. How do you push people around you to make them better?
  5. What can you teach your colleagues?
  6. How do you think about culture in a company, and what moves the needle?
  7. Is culture important to you?
  8. What are you doing about it in your present position?What drives you crazy about working at your current company?
  9. What kind of work environment are you the most happy and productive in?

Then, let the candidates convince you. Those that are a good fit will get it; those that don’t get it aren’t ready.

Furthermore, you may consider ruling out candidates who give you answers like these:

“In my current company, I’ve implemented a popular drinking Olympics. I’ll be able to bring something similar to your company” and “Do I get a bonus if I am a culture contributor?”

If potential candidates can’t speak intelligently beyond the obvious, you can assume that’s the limit of their mindset around culture, which means they can’t contribute beyond that level.

Potential employees don’t have to provide the most original idea you’ve ever heard. But you do want to hear something that shows you that they think of culture beyond the obvious happy hour, ping-pong tables, etc.

Responses you’re looking for follow along these lines:

“Based on the core values you have, I really resonate with the core value ‘grit’ and one habit I have that helps me be better in that area is I’m not afraid to approach new challenges because I’ll outwork anyone” or “You said ‘authenticity’ is your core value; has anyone been penalized for speaking up?”

Reasonably High Expectations

Are you asking too much by seeking job candidates who not only have  skills and passion,  but will also contribute to your culture? No, because any startup is only as good or successful as its people.

Your startup will grow as much as your employees grow. Any one of them can have as much impact on your culture as the CEO. Settling for someone who just “fits” can have a huge opportunity cost—for that person, for the team, and for the entire company. Knowing the collective cost helps the hiring manager make a decision with both eyes open.

As entrepreneurs, you already know that the people you hire won’t exceed the level of thinking you exhibit. You also know that your resolve is the strength of your company. So lean into it. Think about what your company’s culture means to you.

Articulate your vision, tell job candidates your commitment to your employees, and show them how happy your people are. Ask them to specify what they’ll do to elevate your culture in return. Those who get it will jump at the opportunity for a seat in your rocket ship.

CK Lin is Head of Culture for VideoAmp.