The half-formed question hung in the air between the puzzled speaker and a room full of students. We were hosting Larry, a founder of three successful energy startups, as a guest lecturer in our seminar on corporate culture at the University of Pennsylvania. We had just asked the veteran entrepreneur what we thought was a simple warm-up question: How do you create a high-performing culture on a startup team?
Larry pondered the question, scratching a headful of curly locks. Having spent the previous night preparing for an upcoming board meeting, he looked more than slightly disheveled. “Well,” he responded, “when you're in a startup you're going 100 miles an hour 24 hours a day. You don't really have time to think about your team culture.”
Although we would dispute his point about culture, we think Larry is right about the pace of startup teams. When we think of the work ethic of successful founding teams, we imagine multiday, marathon coding sessions, 3 a.m. phone calls with suppliers halfway around the world, and sleepless nights crafting pitches for investors. We think of stories like that of the founders of Dollar Shave Club, a successful online grooming products company.1 Their razor subscription service took off so quickly that the team found themselves frantically printing trash bags full of mailing labels and throwing them over the wall of their distributing warehouse just to keep up with demand.