team workFor eager entrepreneurs developing a business plan, the sheer number of elements to consider can be staggering. Decisions regarding the nature and size of the business, how to market the product and what sort of profits to expect are all necessary considerations. However, with so many factors to juggle, even the savviest entrepreneurs often overlook the importance of company culture. A positive, identifiable company culture can mean the difference between a good idea that never gets traction and a startup that becomes a thriving and identifiable company.

Though difficult economic conditions often inspire companies to limit employee benefits, these sort of extras can make a notable difference in how employees interact with each other and their environment. In a survey conducted by Burson-Marsteller, several companies recognized for their positive work environment were questioned, resulting in the discovery of many similarities. Investment in employees was discovered to be among the top overlaps. Instead of reducing or eliminating programs, 30% of the top-ranked companies invested more in flex-time, health benefits, and employee perks. Furthermore, programs that communicate and reinforce brand mission and provide opportunities for development and education ranked highly among all factors that lead to employee retention.

NetApp, CNNMoney’s #1 ranked “Company to Work For” in 2009, has turned cost efficiency into a team-building asset, adopting the maxim “We are a frugal company. But don’t show up dog-tired to save a few bucks. Use your common sense.” The data storage company’s cost efficiency does not come at the expense of generous employee benefits though, including five paid days for volunteer work. Throughout the market slump, NetApp has been one of the few mid-sized companies to avoid layoffs and actually gain market share.

With an increasing awareness of the importance building company culture, many software companies have begun offering products that enhance a healthy and open office culture. In order to boost collaboration and inspire a more team-oriented culture, executives at Marsh McLennan, an insurance brokerage, are employing a product from Spoke Software Inc. that lets 150 employees use a search engine to seek business contacts from colleagues’ Microsoft Outlook address books. All entries can be accessed through the search engine, though the address book owner can protect specific names for more control over personal privacy.

Even so, Marla Gunasegaram, UCLA Master’s Graduate in Information Architecture, warns of the importance of taking existing corporate culture into account before implementing new technologies in the workplace. “When deciding on a collaborative computing environment, it is best to develop intranets within the company using current employees in the development process,” says Gunasegaram. “This will reinforce, and may even lead to a stronger corporate culture.”

In his book The Culture Cycle, Prof. James L Heskett writes that effective culture can account for 20 to 30% of the differential in corporate performance when compared with “culturally unremarkable” competition, providing ample rationale for entrepreneurs to make corporate culture a priority. Even with great intelligence, ambition and ideas, a startup company is unlikely to ever reach its full potential without a culture that promotes healthy communication and positive, engaged employees. An innovative and inspired workforce is a resource that is all too commonly untapped among start-up entrepreneurs, and a healthy corporate culture is an invaluable first step in ensuring that potential is utilized to its greatest capacity.

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