The unicorn formula: How to keep the startup culture alive

The CEO of sales platform Pipedrive reveals how to keep your workplace crackling with energy
Dominic Allon
Dominic Allon of Pipedrive

Running a startup is exhilarating. With people working in each others’ pockets and a clear and urgent shared goal, every person brings an outsized impact and culture is contagious. Things just tend to click.

As the startup scales, everything stretches, particularly the time it takes to reach understanding with everyone. Culture, however, thrives in smaller groups and is harder to cultivate for new starters who don’t have a shared history and experiences. Yet, it is possible to align a growing organisation behind a culture as the company scales.

Cultivate the culture

Call me biassed, but I think the way the Pipedrive team culture is shared is something special. From one garage in Estonia, in 2010, to a distributed workforce headquartered in New York, serving 100,000+ customers across 175 countries, from ten offices in eight countries through 800+ employees representing 50 nationalities. Keeping a unified culture in the face of rapid growth, internationalisation, and multiple local languages isn’t intuitive. 

Part of the secret is the Estonian experience we’ve nurtured. We hold to certain core values: Be internally driven. Don’t ruin other people’s day. Put the team first. Reach for greatness. Be teachable. No excuses.

As a software startup born from an Estonian melting pot of great startups (ten unicorns - the largest, per capita, globally), the founders and first Pipedrive leaders have always ensured everyone knows that in this industry, the one real constant is change. We are operating in a rapidly evolving and competitive environment and to excel, we need to frequently adjust how we work. 

We have a strong and open communication culture. One of the main tools for achieving this is the possibility to have one-on-one meetings with anyone - no matter how senior. And, if anyone, for example, a junior colleague finds the thought of a 1:1 with the CEO at all nerve-wracking, then they could talk to one of our dedicated personal coaches offering counsel for personal and professional matters. We want our people to be at the top of their game, so we make it easy for them to get the skills and support to make it happen.

Pipedrive's office

Sharing the lessons

Ironically, authenticity is hard to get right. I’ve found that I’ve had to look into myself to find what it is that makes me my authentic best self. It can take soul-searching and executive coaching to ensure that you can consciously communicate the right messages and demonstrate the right behaviours.

Building a strong human connection and creating intimate, open environments with colleagues is critical. Empathy is an important word here. Without it can’t be the deep questions and genuine feedback that happen when people are totally honest. There must be respected vulnerability. If colleagues aren’t comfortable, nothing deep and impactful gets shared and we miss out on the extra percentage of trust and performance.

And, perhaps inevitably, since I’m a technology leader, I think digital transformation is essential to support your team not only to do their jobs well but also to stay on the same page with the shared vision and mission. The right automation, and increasingly, AI, tackle some of the administration and logistics that humans don’t have to manage. Then those people can spend more time on the most important aspects of their role. Merely using AI will be one thing. Using it well so that your people thrive, as part of a virtuous ecosystem of people and tech, will be another.

In the end, it’s all about the people

There’s no one path to success, but there is the ability to commit to principles, as well as do the work to analyse and forecast what’s going well - and what can and should change. Ensuring that people are put first, including customers, colleagues, and then everyone else in the business ecosystem, means that the right culture, the right attitudes, and the right behaviours are consciously kept at the fore

Written by
Dominic Allon
CEO, Pipedrive
April 15, 2024
Written by
April 15, 2024