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We all know that culture is vital to any business. As you grow, culture becomes part of your DNA.

“Culture deeply influences the people you attract and retain,” writes Adam Berrey at Startup Blender. “At the same time it shapes how people work together in your company and what they ultimately achieve.”

But how do you create a company culture when you’re starting up and only have a handful of people in your company?

I was one of the first to join the DesignCrowd team, and was able to help build a fun, hard-working culture, driven by the company context — to discover the most creative design ideas and designers in the world. In a startup, a key challenge is to sustain high energy levels at work to get the job done and keep a bank of resilience in reserve when things don’t go as planned. We do it by keeping our focus on open communication and planning for the future, so as a team we each feel we are part of a bigger goal.

If you remember one thing from this article, remember this: The earlier you start to focus your energy on your team, and the culture of your company, the better and easier things will be in the years ahead. But here are some other tips as well:

1) Picture yourself in 5 years’ time

What does your company look like? What values and goals is it promoting and enacting? Future dreaming is a great way to get the team excited about working. You can then set some goals and work backwards to figure out how you can start bringing your desired culture alive right now.

2) Brand your culture

Your brand is intimately linked to your company culture. “What’s the best way to build a brand for the long-term? In a word: culture,” says Zappos entrepreneur Tony Hsieh. “Your company’s culture and your company’s brand are really just two sides of the same coin.”

Brand and culture share values, beliefs, goals and dreams, so consider how you can “brand” your culture in the same way you brand your business. How does your brand reflect your culture, and your culture reflect your brand?

3) Think bigger, be bigger

Start-ups all want the same thing — to get off the ground and eventually become a key marketplace leader. But your achievements have to be greater than this. What’s the real world difference you’re trying to make?

This is about separating your culture from ideas around financial growth and opening yourself up to the “big picture” view of what you want your culture to be. How do you want to be seen as a business? What else do you want to achieve? Summarize your goals in a few words and remind your team of them daily.

It’s this mission that will define and give edge to your internal culture and will also put you on the map as a company that is really an industry innovator and a world changer.

4) Create practices around your values

Culture essentially comes down to values at the company, team and individual level. It’s also about what you do as a company, not what you say. To quote entrepreneur Brad Feld, “You can’t motivate people, you can only create a context in which people are motivated.”

Now is the time, at this start-up stage, to begin implementing practices — throughout your whole business, from perks and benefits to decision-making to remuneration — that reflect the culture and values you want your company to embody.

5) Be culturally responsible

Whatever the size of your company, whatever industry you’re in, you not only have corporate responsibility, but cultural responsibility. You are responsible for your culture – for giving it life, for taking control of it and for shaping it as your business grows, so that it consistently exemplifies your values and embodies your brand.

As you strategize keep in mind that culture is scalable and will help build a sustainable organization because it creates meaning and purpose so start ‘engineering’ the culture you want to scale from the beginning.

My last suggestion is, make time to focus on culture in your startup. Do it now. Hold proper meetings and have real discussions. By simply talking about it and making key decisions early on, you’ll establish your culture as one that cares about culture. If you’re still skeptical  about elevating culture as a priority in your startup, read entrepreneur and MIT professor Bill Aulet’s piece about why his startup failed.

Most startups don’t bother with this. They’re too focused on investment and products and marketplace positioning – but even with only a few people, you can begin modeling and managing your culture at the stage when it matters most.

Jo Sabin is Community Manager at DesignCrowd, an online graphic design marketplace.

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