The report highlights a happier and more resilient workforce as the leading outcome of a thriving startup’s culture, with the vast majority stating that it plays a critical role in their ability to grow (86%), attract talent (85%) and secure investment (85%). Underscoring this, the data also shows that as Australia’s startup ecosystem matures, leaders and their teams recognise that “grind culture” – or, a mentality that expects and encourages long hours and team availability beyond a standard work day – is not a sustainable way to run a startup for long-term growth and success.
Tapping into the expertise and deep experience from more than 500 founders, leading investors, advisors, and startup ecosystem influencers, the report explores the critical ingredients for, and outcomes of Australian startup culture. It aims to provide guidance to current and aspiring founders on how to build a thriving and productive company culture from day one – as well as what to watch out for.
Perks passing their peak
“Work perks” are often synonymous with startup culture, with ping pong tables and paid lunches routinely featuring in “best places to work” lists. However, the research indicates a move beyond these mainstays of startup team motivation, with “work-life balance initiatives” listed as the most common (47%) factor cited as critical for building a flourishing organisational culture.
This finding is affirmed by Craig Cowdrey, co-founder and CEO of workplace wellbeing startup, Sonder, who says that workers have grown skeptical of these perks, especially when they are prioritised over more meaningful benefits. “So much of that has been recognised as not particularly relevant or determinative in an employee's choice,” he says. “A lot of them think that it’s just to keep them working in the office longer.”
Grappling with grind culture
Despite the clear recognition that strong culture leads to a startup team’s happiness and better business outcomes, the research shows that the Australian startup ecosystem is still navigating some of these negative facets like grind culture, with the vast majority (93%) acknowledging that it exists. The research indicates it is typically driven by internal performance pressures (45%), perfectionism to ensure the business’s success (43%), and competition from other startups (42%).
To move away from this, startups are beginning to take steps to minimise “the grind,” with some intentionally embedding self-care as a company value. Dr Ben Hurst, Founder and CEO of patient engagement platform HotDoc, works hard to instill this in his business, and says that striving towards balance and self-care is critical for wellbeing in a startup. Reflecting this belief, HotDoc’s values include “Take ownership,” “Always be empathetic,” and “Speak up,” which are designed to encourage team members to look after themselves, and each other. “You are doing the wrong thing if you are working in a way that is not self-sustaining,” says Dr Hurst.
Impact on founders’ mental health: tall poppy and imposter syndromes
The research also shines a light on the common pressures and dynamics impacting the mental health and wellbeing of founders, and outlines how some of Australia’s startup leaders are managing those personal challenges, and providing guidance for future founders to learn from.
Two thirds of startup leaders (66%) believe tall poppy syndrome – a cultural attitude that resents, disapproves of, or condemns success – is alive and well within the startup community, with most respondents experiencing it personally (80%).
According to leaders, this can manifest as an aversion to risk (46%), stunted career development (45%), and weakened mental and emotional wellbeing (43%). But the most common source of tall poppy syndrome is social media, with almost half stating it as the primary source (46%), as well as sentiment from Corporate Australia (35%) and the media (34%).
Imposter syndrome is another key concern for the mental wellbeing of founders, with more than three quarters (77%) of startup leaders feeling it. Managing those feelings can be a challenge, but according to the research, the most common strategies include focusing on building resilience (28%) or taking time to celebrate success (27%).
Some, however, do not manage it positively. A quarter (26%) simply mask it and a fifth (21%) manage it by working until they burn out. Nearly the same number (19%) indicate that they would like help managing the mental wellbeing challenges that many founders experience.
Expert advice and insights for Australia’s future founders
John Kearney, Head of Startups, Australia and New Zealand, AWS, said the report intends to provide practical knowledge, expert guidance, and hard-earned lessons from established founders, to support Australia’s future founders to prioritise building a strong culture in their own startups from the very beginning.
“Full of insights and real-world experience collected through ecosystem research, this report highlights the many attributes that make startups so inspiring to us all. They seize opportunities and solve problems in innovative ways, they question societal norms and question the status quo, and help solve some of the biggest challenges of our time by using technology to build the future. But all of this is only possible if a startup has established a strong culture that encourages experimentation and testing of ideas, quick decision making, and learning from mistakes,” said Kearney. “That’s the cultural foundation that AWS is built on, too – that’s why, for over 15 years, we’ve helped more startups launch, build, and succeed than any other cloud provider, offering the technology tools, mentorship, and technical support to enable startup founders to bring their ambitious, world-changing ideas to life.
“While cloud computing has removed many of the traditional barriers to entry for entrepreneurs, launching and growing a startup is not an easy journey. But the rewards can be great – for the founders, the people who work for them, and society at large – so we are keen to encourage more future founders to follow this path. By highlighting the achievements of startups and the importance of culture in supporting their vision, we hope to not only accelerate their success, but to inspire the next generation to prove what’s possible.”
Taking the first steps to starting a startup
Are you inspired to give your startup idea a go? Here at AWS we are here to help future founders take that first step, with a range of programs and initiatives to support startups. At the earliest stages, the AWS Activate program provides qualified startups with a range of benefits, including AWS credits, technical support, and training. Hundreds of thousands of startups around the world have benefitted from the program since 2013, and in the past two years alone, AWS has provided more than US$2 billion in Activate credits to help early-stage startups launch their businesses and accelerate their growth. With this help, startups are using scalable, reliable, and secure cloud services like compute, storage, database, analytics, Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning, and many others from AWS to scale their businesses. To join AWS Activate, visit https://aws.amazon.com/activate/
You can check out the rest of the research and insights in the report, “How startups create a culture of possibilities.” Click here to learn from established Australian founders about what it takes to create a culture for success, and the key factors and considerations that have made the difference as they’ve grown.