The road to building a winning Startup Culture

How to build your own winning startup culture? Avoid the same mistakes of the ecosystem and learn the best practices from Polymath Ventures

The startup culture is one of the most overrated concepts of our times. It has its own halo of divinity filled with high expectations, several myths, and a ton of Hollywood images of yoga studios, unlimited beer, no hierarchies, and a lot of happy faces. All of these may sound fantastic and exciting, but in our experience, we have learned that startup culture goes beyond idyllic expectations and requires intentional work from the leadership to actually create a differentiated culture that impacts attraction, retention, but most importantly, deeper connections with your team.

In this new blog post, we talked to Nicole Perez, Talent Director at Polymath, and other members of the company to understand why we believe our startup culture is crucial to our success and the learnings that the pandemic left us and drove important transformations within our group. Welcome!

What is a Startup Culture?

We usually do not see a Startup Culture as any of the mentioned above. Sure all of those perks are exciting and in some cases, those reflect the interests of certain audiences. But, for us, startup culture is an intangible sum of traits and mindsets that define who we are and how do we behave. Also, if you are looking for just perks, maybe we are not the right fit. Instead, we would expect that our culture is a key differentiating factor for you to join Polymath Ventures.

Why is it important to develop and own your culture?

In the startup ecosystem, achieving greater results does not rely just on know-how, amazing products, smart people, and a few cool perks. Startup Culture is at the core of your success along with some of these components because it reflects the soul of your company and it dictates the guidelines for everything you do; how you hire, promote and, make tough calls, prioritize the focus and energy of the team, among other things.

We believe the Startup Culture is a reflection of our founders, Wenyi Cai and Carlos Fernández de la Pradilla, and it’s continuously built by the team members of the group. From the get-go, Wenyi and Carlos knew they wanted to build a very different culture, a culture where the main players are warriors determined to win, no matter the circumstances. This common mindset determined how we started building our own cultural framework which includes components like Growth Mindset, Founders Mentality, and Pursuit of Excellence.

After 9 years of building ventures in Latin America, we have learned that owning a differentiated culture impacts your ability to attract, develop, and retain talent. According to the 2019 report released by Glassdoor around the relevance of culture in the workplace, more than three-quarters (77 percent) of adults would consider a company’s culture before applying for a job there, and well over half (56 percent) say company culture is more important than salary when it comes to job satisfaction.”

More than three-quarters (77 percent) of adults would consider a company’s culture before applying for a job ” – Glassdoor

As the culture is being built within the startup, the core leaders also secure that it’s being adopted and implemented in each interaction, experience, or even decision-making process. At Polymath, we have done this for both internal and external interactions. Internally, from the moment someone starts to be part of the selection process until the person leaves the company, every touchpoint is based on the culture. Therefore, if the culture is not clear, each part of the talent journey can feel like a series of inconsistencies that will prevent talent from understanding how to add a disproportionate value to the organization and succeed individually and collectively.

Externally, culture is also the strategy to connect with the right people. When the culture is not clear you can attract all types of talent, investors, stakeholders and a relevant portion of them might not be aligned with the values of the organization, causing rework and misalignment of expectations on both sides.

This is how our Startup Culture feels like
This is how our Startup Culture feels like

How to develop your own startup culture?

The theory explains that in order to build high-performing teams, one of the most important factors is to make sure everyone is looking in the same direction. But, when it comes to entrepreneurship, the high level of uncertainty adds an additional layer of complexity, in which a clear direction is often not a possibility or can even represent an obstacle for teams to reach the highest potential of an idea. Therefore, successful startup teams instead of always having a fixed direction, have a set of guiding principles to navigate through the uncertainty and adjust the path in order to build something truly extraordinary.

At Polymath, getting to today’s culture has been an ongoing process. Recently, after important organizational changes, a pandemic, and new leaders jumping into the table, we decided it was time to review our culture vision and align as a leadership team on what is really important. Our objective with the culture revamp was to intentionally design those principles as a team and involve everyone in the process to guarantee ownership and familiarity. This is how we do it:

  1. We started by deep diving at all levels of the organization on their perception of the culture (the good and the gritty)
    • Leaders shared their input in a Miro board around; heroes and legends, sayings and language, customs and rituals, values and beliefs, and artifacts
    • A group of employees played “mad-libs” to share the adjectives that represent our culture in different scenarios
  2. We synthesized findings to arrive at what was common, what was contradictory, and what were the most important questions to answer
    • Reviewed and filtered all the responses to find common patterns and categorize them to enable more effective discussions
    • Compare the findings with the strategic vision we had from previous conversations with the leadership
  3. We hold an intense in-person 2 days-workshop session with all leaders in the organization (everyone leading a department was part of it, and managers located in other places traveled to HQ to meet the team in person) with the objective to share the results from the culture research, and build together a stronger and more refreshed version of Polymath Culture.


This how our culture looks like

Who are we? – We are Polymaths

Wikipedia said it better. We are individuals with the ability to span our knowledge to a substantial number of subjects. We are a rare combination of skills, empathy, and knowledge that allows us to break through complex problems with creativity, agility, and grit. If you work at Polymath Ventures, you are a Polymath. You and every one of us have the power to make us win. Our team is small, but we move fast and with clear goals, so you will make a BIG difference.

Our core values

  • Founders Mentality – _We all are founders of Polymath. Period_We are all owners of the success of our company, so we take actions to solve what’s not working or improve what can be done to better, even if it is not related to our role. We take care of company resources as our own, we care about our people, and we obsess about every aspect needed for our success. We enjoy getting our hands dirty, fully immersing ourselves in the project, understanding the details, and playing a part in the execution.
  • Results obsessed – We are here to win, with no excuses
    We are real entrepreneurs, we are here to win, with no excuses, and to do so we do everything it takes to follow through and accomplish the goal. We are always drawn to bigger challenges and at times of failure or uncertainty, we keep pushing even harder than before with the result in mind.
  • Growth Mindset – _We are not afraid of failure, it’s an opportunity to grow_We see opportunities in failure, criticism, and feedback. We constantly expose ourselves to uncomfortable situations because we know it’s an incredible opportunity for learning and overcoming limitations. We transform setbacks into levers that propel us forward.
  • Pursuit of excellence – We are passionate and proud of our work
    We always do our best, and our best means better and different than the norm. It is about both the quality of thought and the quality of execution. Our standards of quality and performance are extremely high – we never settle and always strive to do extraordinary work.
  • Team over individuals – _We always prioritize the success of the team_We believe in the power of the collective to unleash tremendous potential and tackle the world’s toughest issues. As a team, we push each other to think differently, care about each other, and foster a psychological safety space. We have the emotional maturity to understand and accept that sometimes individual sacrifices are necessary for the success of the team.
  • Diversity at the coreWe believe individual uniqueness builds collective success
    We believe that innovation and organizational resilience are derived from the diversity of our team. We bring different backgrounds, skills, and opinions to enrich the collective knowledge and the experience of the team, and we are all responsible for building a safe environment that celebrates diversity.
The people that makes our Startup Culture
The people that makes our Startup Culture

Advice to build your startup culture

Building a startup culture is an ongoing process that requires intentional work from the founders, leadership, and team members. Here are four recommendations from our talent director, Nicole Perez to kick off your development journey and how to continue fostering a culture at every step.

  • A culture that is everything at the same time, is a culture that has no clear personality. Avoid the trap of trying to appeal to everyone and accept that a strong culture would have some trade-offs
  • Do not underestimate the process. The journey to define the culture is as important as the final outcome. Have in mind the different levels and profiles in your organization and think of creative ways to engage them in the process. The objective should be to get input from different angles and at the same time make sure to develop ownership from their side as well
  • This is not an HR department job. It should be a priority in the top leadership agenda. In our case, the Marketing Director and the Talent Director led the process but leaders across the organization were accountable to comply with deliverables and to participate equally in the discussion, especially the CEO
  • Avoid the trap to keep the “culture” at a high level of thought. When doing a revamp, how to land messages into the day-to-day is key. Land it with specific examples, role models, and behaviors.

In our vision, having a compelling and cohesive culture increases our chances of success. A team that is so strong and so aligned at a principles level can go through anything in order to win.

We are happy to hear about your journey and learn what other startups have done to develop a differential and successful culture, reach out at [email protected]

Happy Culture Building!