Startups: Why Culture Trumps Capital

By TechZone360 Special Guest
Christopher Justice, CEO of Sparksight
December 02, 2013

Attitude is the most valuable currency in today’s business environment and it is a key indicator of future success. Never before in history has innovation been so celebrated, encouraged and ubiquitous. Leaders are everywhere. That’s precisely why raising capital through VCs and angel investors may not be the best approach for your next big idea.

A business is the orchestration of people serving a common goal. Establishing the success ecosystem – those who will advise, direct, recommend and implement your ideas – means carefully choosing people who have experience, integrity, loyalty and honesty. 

The first role of a chief executive officer or founder is to establish corporate culture and communicate core values.

Too much cash is actually detrimental to the business when it comes through funding versus revenues. There are enough examples of venture-backed dreams and acquisitions gone wrong. Why? Because capital destroys culture.

Angel and venture capital may back my fellow entrepreneurs, but they struggle with the ideation of a product, the development of culture and financial integrity of the daily business. Plus an additional layer of mania to satisfy investors. No thank you.

I have two primary passions: operations and recruiting. I don’t have a perfect track record of product ideas or people. However, one of my hard-won secrets is that I protect my business. I typically interview potential employees before introducing them to anyone within my company.

This is an uncommon approach for many CEOs and may not seem scalable. However, this behavior allows me to carefully select the type of personalities that will amplify the business and enhance our ability to execute as a team. 

Chemistry creates culture

Proudly, I’ve made six pivots in as many years. I’ve retained almost the entire original founding team. We have never missed payroll, we have no debt and loyal customers. It has not been perfect and we have struggled, but we stand together and find ways to make things work. People are what make me get up earlier and stay later.

Here are three ideals I'd recommend to maintain core values within your company:


You must make the decision to regularly and publicly show gratitude to every person we encounter. This does not mean purchasing expensive gifts or dinners - it simply means showing genuine thanks. Most people are good-natured and generous until you are not generous and thankful in return. Choose random acts of senseless kindness. 

The phrase my staff uses to elevate our gratitude to one other is “I appreciate you”. It’s protocol now because I made reciprocity a part of our work ethic and company mantra.

Raising capital is a distraction

While it may be necessary for holistic ideas, preparing presentations that describe fantastical liquidity events for investors is a poor use of our mental capital and it attracts the “wrong people”Growing a business is about scars, not trophies. You need fighters with charisma, integrity, humility, attention to detail and most important of all, faith. Focus on providing value in what you sell and being genuinely interested in the success of others despite your own.

If you blindly follow money, you may not like where your culture ends up. Be hungry, not full.

Products are not exceptional, people are

There are dozens - if not hundreds - of people behind every idea. Execution of an idea by your carefully selected team is the magic. Products with true business value governed by the culture you created; magic creates unstoppable cultures. People first. Choose them well.

Tony Hsieh, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Larry Page, Mark Benioff, Tim, Howard Schultz - true leadership and personal transformation. They have all gone from zero income, to startup, to multi-million/billion dollar organizations.

Entrepreneurship means accepting anxiety, competition and despair. Setbacks occur daily and stress accumulates. The psychological price of entrepreneurship is already too high. Playing it safe, taking calculated risks while growing revenue organically, can result in a happier and more rewarding business ownership. Delivering products or services that generate profit and income without liability and debt is true paradise.

This is the focus for my life and career, zero to profit.

We are all a work in progress. Entrepreneurship is not science, it is imperfect and most importantly, it is rarely, exactly repeatable. I’ve never met an entrepreneur that followed their original business plan from beginning to end. Budgets change, expectations are reset and companies often pivot into new markets based on the economy, technological shifts or simply the need to survive.

Culture is currency and attitude is profit. Teach people to reciprocate, focus on and align with core company values, follow their heart and their gut instinct, and encourage them to be exceptional. The ultimate goal is to have a business grow with and without you.

Cultures survive even when capital does not.


Christopher Justice is Chief Executive Officer of Sparksight, Inc. and leads product strategy for Leading Reach. Follow him on Twitter @megajustice. 

Edited by Cassandra Tucker
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