December 15, 2022

Creating belongingness and culture in the startup world

Culture is not written.

And it definitely isn't posted on a wall, website, or a Notion page.

Culture, and all its essence, is discussed, co-created, and acted on in the real world.

And that's exactly what we did at Swarm. Here, I share a few things I've learned as we went through this grueling process. I am speaking from the context of a small, intimate startup — but I do believe the principles carry over at scale.

This year, I learned that the culture I want prioritizes belongingness.

All people matter. We have to hear, see, and listen to each other. We need to create avenues to express our true selves. We acknowledge and act on feedback, thoughtfully. We affirm each other and each other's hard work.

Belongingness to me unlocks many things. It enables people to reach their fullest potential. We become more inspired. Reaching our goals becomes even more fulfilling.

Yet, belongingness is quite hard to achieve, even for a small organization. Luckily, I have phenomenal co-founders around me to show me the ropes.

The core of culture stems from the leaders. It's inevitable. In my case at Swarm, that means whatever behavior I espouse cascades everywhere. And the same is true for my co-founders.

Who you are as a person IS the culture.

If this is true, then the thing I can do that will yield the highest ROI is to improve myself AND my relationships with fellow leaders. We had to have clarity on individual purpose and personal agendas.

We shared these bravely. We nailed down our values together. We opened up how we felt, and created a safe, trusting environment for each partner.

I realized that this was powerful. We can take greater risks. We have evolved to build a high octane space of personal care and excellence.

Culture is most effective when people commit to a common "why." That's exactly what we did first as leaders of the organization. After laying out our individual goals, we aligned all of them to the shared goal we had for why the company existed in the first place.

Being vulnerable about the personal intentions of founders and aligning them to the soul of our being as a startup is effectively the most important groundwork we have ever done.

Team vulnerability, intimacy, and accountability.

Now that we've created clarity for leadership, then we move on to the whole organization. If vulnerability and trust exists among the startup co-founders, then a strong foundation and example is set for everyone else too.

The teams started to be more cohesive when we held space for people to open up about their own personal goals and to align that to our shared purpose in the company.

During our retreat, we started acknowledging and recognizing every individual. There was space for people to be their full, authentic selves. We gave affirmations to one another. We held honest conversations. We got to know each other for who we truly are.

Because of this safe environment, we started to send the signal that we always had each other's back. Because people felt safe, it unlocked new powers. We have the latitude to take risks. There was high motivation, excitement, and a strong want to work with one another.

In my eyes, after two years, it's like we've finally evolved to a phenomenal level of trust.

One concrete example was when we had our company retrospective. The trust we've built during our retreat allowed us to have sharper, direct, and purposeful feedback from every team. It also felt like each person had more empathy and kindness toward one another.

The culture we shaped together inspired for stronger, creative collisions.

A community of intrinsic belonging brings accountability and results.

With all the personal and relational work we've put in, we started making strides around accountability— making shit happen felt like the default operating system.

Because we laid the groundwork for vulnerability and psychological safety first, it transformed to mutual trust and courage to have personal and shared accountability. We all cared about what we were doing because we cared for each other.

Together, we've facilitated company-wide mission alignment discussions and strategy planning spaces, executed design studios, and made operational adjustments. By working on ourselves and lifting each other up, the way we do work is transforming.

I've been seeing phenomenal results in how people contributed. There's an irresistible urge to go beyond what we were used to and hit targets with a calm confidence. People are more innovative, are more willing to take risks, and are bolder with their ideas.

This is the future of work. And everyone deserves it.


Here are some books that might help explain the concepts from our experience at Swarm.

The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle

Deep Purpose, Ranjay Gulati

The Five Dysunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni

Start with Why, Simon Sinek


Thank you to Jayne, Quics, Isa, and Pia for helping me edit and clarify my thinking.

Other Ramblings