How to Build a Great Small Business Company Culture

The one thing your competition can’t steal or copy is your company culture. Make your small business’ employees feel appreciated and valued by creating a great company culture using these tips from Piyush Patel, author of Lead Your Tribe, Love Your Work. 

How many times have you heard “People don’t quit jobs—they quit managers?” “If only he would have thanked me—just once!—I would have stuck it out.” Or, “They never told me I was doing a bad job, but they never told me I was doing a good job, either.” Or simply, “I never felt appreciated.”

When confronted with these types of statements, the managers in question often say, “I told them they were doing a good job all the time!” Truthfully, they may have…but not in a way that meant anything to the person getting the message.

Here’s a simple yet profound idea: how about we provide affirmation in a way that means something to each person?

In The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, author Gary Chapman posits that there are five primary ways (or “languages”) that demonstrate love…and each person’s language is different:

  1. Words of affirmation, such as a verbal thank you or a handwritten note.
  2. Acts of service, such as helping a co-worker with a project even though you don’t have to.
  3. Giving or receiving gifts, such as getting your friend their favorite candy bar or a cup of coffee.
  4. Spending quality time, such as listening to your teammate for a few minutes, or taking time to have lunch or meeting for happy hour.
  5. Appropriate physical touch, such as a pat on the back or a congratulatory handshake.

Did you ever learn about psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? Maslow ranked human needs from our most immediate priorities (which he placed at the bottom of a pyramid) to our most abstract needs (which he placed at the pyramid’s peak). He said that our basic needs—food and shelter—should be addressed first. Similarly, when thinking about people’s motivation at work, their most fundamental drive is to cover basic needs. They need a paycheck so they can buy food and provide for their families.

Maslow said after those basic needs are met that we, as social animals, need more. We need love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

Our modern world gives us easy access to the basics. Most adults in developed countries spend their nights under a roof, can afford basic nutrition, and aren’t under serious threat of being mauled by wild animals in their sleep. Whether your employees know it or not, once these basics are fulfilled, they look to the next level of the pyramid, and then the next. If you want a truly successful tribe, you must help them fulfill those needs.

My company, Digital-Tutors, didn’t have a monopoly on training for creative artists. We lived and worked in Oklahoma City. We certainly didn’t have an abundance of choice when hiring from the small industry talent pool. Besides our core staff of thirty-two, we worked with over three hundred freelance subcontractors who could (and did) hire out their skills all over the world. We didn’t have a capital advantage, since we (proudly) had zero debt and zero investors. We didn’t have a technological advantage; anyone can publish videos. We didn’t have exclusive contracts with our customers; they could get their training from anybody, including free YouTube videos. In short, there was no piece of our puzzle that a competitor (or even a current employee) couldn’t go out and copy.

Except culture.

You can’t instantly create a network of relationships. You can’t recreate the dynamics of a tight-knit group. You can’t reproduce the social infrastructure and productivity of a team that already works beautifully together. Our culture is what attracted the best people to Digital-Tutors.

Over a few hundred years ago, the factories of the Industrial Age were massive. The start-up capital alone kept production in the hands of the über-rich. Who could afford to buy the enormous machines to run an assembly line but huge corporations?

Those days are long past. In today’s economy, your most important assets get up and go home every night. Every morning, your product lines reassemble themselves to start churning out widgets (real or intangible) for your customers. Some days, some parts and pieces of the production line don’t show up.

Some days, those manufacturers even get up, walk out, go down the street, and walk into the doors of one of your competitors.

In nearly every industry, the barriers to entry have been swept away. As New York Times’ journalist Tom Friedman says, “The world is flat,” right? The only competitive advantage business owners can truly, wholly, and uniquely own anymore—if “own” even applies—is their company’s culture. If that’s the case, you’d better make sure it’s a culture that matters.

As a business owner, you can create your own sandbox or company or whatever you want to call it.

Culture is bigger than the sum of its parts.

I think of culture as the moat around my business. The more my culture matters…the more loyal my people are to me and my company…the deeper their relationships are with me and with each other…the deeper and wider the moat gets around my business and the harder it is for the competition to hire my talent away (not to mention the fact that it makes my people reluctant to leave in the first place).

Putting all other considerations aside and focusing purely on business strategy, your culture is the only thing your competition can’t copy. They can copy your technology, your methods, your warehouses, your kitschy offices, your HR policies, and your ideas.

They can’t copy how your company makes your tribe feel.

Piyush Patel is an entrepreneur and an innovator in corporate culture with more than 20 years of experience, and author of Lead Your Tribe, Love Your Work: An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Creating a Culture that Matters [Feb. 6, 2018]. As the founder of Digital-Tutors, a world-leading online training company, he has helped educate more than one million students in digital animation, with clients including Pixar, Apple and NASA.

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