What is the most important ingredient in a startup?
This question is asked of me constantly and my answer always is "culture." Its a very amorphous attribute, yet it trumps, in my opinion, other attributes such as rock star employees, product portfolio and even capital.
To me, in our type of company (fast-paced software products company), team culture is about
1) the quality of the team as a whole (not just quality of a few rock stars),
2) the interdependence of the team and
3) their individual and team accountability.
With a great team culture, one can create a good portfolio of products, but without the correct culture, creating products will be strained and may even fail altogether. In a fast-paced technology market, good products today have limited shelf-life and new products must be continually created. With the correct culture, it is possible to create endless stream of new products.
How to Create the Right Culture
First, it is important to be true to everyone. Employees quickly see through double-talk and bureaucratic veil. Transparency is an oft-used word, but it is about being true to the written and unwritten agreements with employees. If there is a gray area, the employer should always take the high road.
Second, it is important to be compassionate yet business-minded. In our company, the company pays 100% of the health insurance--not 5 or 10% matching contribution. Looking simply at economics, it is very easy to offer less, especially when health insurance costs are growing double digits each year, but satisfied employees contribute a lot more. Equally, it pays well to be accommodative to each employee's situation--for that reason, having a very flexible working environment, including unlimited vacation policy does wonders. It might seem unlimited vacation can ruin a team, but, in reality, the opposite is true; due to interdependence of the team, individual team member does not free-load to the detriment of the entire team.
Third, it is important to be fair with each employee, but also across employees. Accountability is part of this ethos--I have a saying for team members: "You do good work, its easily recognized; you mess up, that is also visible to everyone." Each person's achievement, attitude as well as the team's overall achievement should determine important aspects like individual & team perks like parking spaces, but also overall compensation. As long as one is fair and consistent, you'll get paid pack in a very productive and agile team that will go to bat for you in the marketplace.