Poor pay, high turnover rates, questionable hires, outsized egos and rotten culture are all characteristics that one might encounter when working in the fashion industry. Company culture is a vital component of life at a startup and also represents a challenge faced by many fashion brands. Nailing an appropriate company culture can do wonders for an organization. It makes it easier to outline criteria for new hires, bolsters retention and may even make up for low compensation. So then why do so many companies fail to address it? The reality is that building a culture where creativity can thrive and great products can be born is a daunting task. There is no real roadmap and getting it wrong can be devastating to a growing business.
While I don’t have all the answers, I do know that there are a few basic threads of company culture that every founder should think about fostering, especially founders of businesses in “creative” industries. Before we get to that…let’s talk about the definition of company culture:
According to Bonobos CEO, Andy Dunn, company culture is “an output of a bunch of inputs that have to come together the right way. Specifically, it is the collision of people and their context, how they interact with each other in that context, and how that context evolves based on those interactions as they multiply.” I prefer to think of culture as everyday core values and actions of each member of the team in pursuit of the company mission.
Now back to those threads I mentioned…
Root your culture in company values
The strongest design cultures are rooted around something deeper than perks and having a good time at work. It is extremely important to have company values be directly tied to the company’s reason for being or the larger problem that the company seeks to solve.
Once that is clear employees will have a guiding star, a mission from which they can determine where their work fits in. Beyond simply being inspirational, articulating a larger mission can give employees (designersespecially) an ideological starting point from which to work. Illustrating the mission can also be helpful. In classrooms around HBS we see the core values of the institution. This serves as a reminder to all that there are certain guidelines that govern our work within the organization. It is important to have these principles in plain sight in areas visible to all constituents. In fashion for example, a lot of companies are split between designers and “business people”. It is crucial that employees from each side of the organization can speak the same language and work from the same core values towards a common goal.
Physical Space Matters
Creative people pull energy from their surroundings. Designers should always be feeding their senses and as such should constantly be stimulated by the environment in which they work. Furthermore, the amount of effort that founders put into designer the physical workspace sends a message about the value you place on the wellbeing of your employees. As John Couch, the head of design for Magento remarked, “A fluorescent-lit beige cubicle sends one signal, a call-center type open space another. A visually-stimulating, well-designed space says: ‘We value creativity and expect you to raise your game.’” Office space should be customized to the employees one hopes to attract and…you guessed it, the company’s core values. For example, for a company that values teamwork and collaboration cubicles probably won’t cut it.
Partnership Gives Birth to Great Design
Nothing determines the strength of a culture more than the people within it, and the relationships among them. In a world where it’s easy to have many thousands of friends, followers, and fans through social media, it’s easy to confuse a digital high-five with a true partnership that can produce excellent work. The ability of organizations to genuinely facilitate collaboration in a way that it becomes a way of life for employees is a sign of great culture. For example, the earlier that designers are brought into the product development and forecasting processes not only sends a message about how valued a designers input is but it also allows for diverse perspectives on how to tackle a problem at its inception.
Obviously building a great culture in which creativity can thrive isn’t the goal in and of itself but what it does facilitate is one’s ability to attract the best and brightest talent, retain those individuals and then ultimately build great products. It’s not easy but definitely worth the journey.