Small business culture dos and don’ts

4 min read  |   25 February, 2019   By Aimée Brougham-Chandler

An image of several chocolate cupcakes with swirling chocolate icing. Each cupcake is topped with a cloud shaped Breathe logo.

There is so much literature on company culture. And much of it is created by those who haven’t had the amazing, but daunting, task of steering small business growth. That's why we thought we'd pass the keyboard over to the creator of our own successful small business culture - Breathe's CEO and founder, Jonathan Richards. So here it is - straight from the man himself. 

Now I’m an avid consumer of business books, podcasts and videos but when it comes to understanding company culture there’s nothing that beats real life experience. Rather than positioning myself as another expert, I thought I’d share my top 7 lessons from my Breathe journey. What a difference 6 years and a great team can make.


#1. Do be deliberate about how you curate your businesses culture

It’s taken me many years and a number of start-ups to get my head around the fact that every business has a culture, whether they know it or not.  Whenever you get a group of people together, they start to create norms – the idea that teams go through the three stages of storming, norming and finally (hopefully) performing. Whether you want it to or not, your business will eventually develop a culture so why not have a hand in how it develops?

#2. Don’t ever get complacent

Just when you think everything is rocking and rolling, you’ll get hit by a culture curve ball. That’s the thing about company culture, it’s a living beast that needs to be looked after.

In the early stages you need to treat it like you would a toddler – loads of encouragement and praise but with a healthy set of boundaries. Our goal is to grow Breathe in a fast but sustainable way. In year 4 we grew the team from 12 to 24 people in just 9 months. You can imagine that this stretched us in ways that we could never have imagined.

My big lesson was that culture needs to be codified if it is to be passed onto new team members – nothing too heavy, just enough to show ‘how we do things around here’.

small business culture dos and donts breathe-min

#3. Do lead by example

It might be a cliché, but success starts at the top. In a small business, all eyes are on the leadership team, so they need to live and love the culture. That doesn’t mean you need to be 100% on message, nobody’s perfect! The goal is to be mindful and acknowledge when you slip – your people will appreciate you all the more for showing authenticity and vulnerability.

#4. Don’t try to teach culture

I was listening to a podcast interview this morning with one of the founders of SoulCycle (they’re recognised as having a great company culture). She went to great lengths to stress that ‘culture gets caught, not taught’.  How people act is way more important than the values hung on the wall.

Recognising and rewarding behaviour that lives up to your values will always gain acknowledgement and appreciation from everyone in your team.  Remember its ‘the way things get done around here’ not the way we say things should be done.

 #5. Do let your culture evolve

Great cultures mature over time so don’t be too rigid with the rule book. Many factors influence our businesses (e.g. pace of growth, business health, economic conditions) and they can all benefit from a bit of breathing space.

Mark Andreessen, the guy credited with inventing the web browser, said that entrepreneurs need “strong opinions, loosely held”. In other words, know exactly what you want but remain open to change. Protect your culture with all your might until you see a way of improving it. Word of caution – it’s all about evolution, not revolution.

#6. Don’t buy beanbags

Culture is recognised for the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ but many people fall into the trap of starting with the ‘whats’. Edgar Schein's organisational culture model talks about culture in terms of assumptions, values and artifacts.

Start building your culture around core assumptions (perceptions, thoughts, feelings & beliefs), then add values (strategies, goals, philosophies & justifications) and finally think about artifacts (structures, processes and visible signs). Beanbags, pool tables and beer fridges sit neatly under the artifacts heading but are certainly not the be-all. 

For more inspiration, take a look at the great TEDx talk by Helen Martin ‘What if your job made you happier?’  

#7. Do treat people like grown-ups 

As business leaders we put a huge amount of effort into recruiting the right people, so why do we treat them like children when they start working for us? We create businesses with layers and numerous procedures that seem hell-bent on keeping those employees in their place like they were children on the naughty step. It’s well accepted that people want autonomy, mastery and purpose in their work. So, why not start with the assumption that everybody comes to work to do an amazing job.

I love how Patty McCord describes this in her TED video ‘8 lessons in building a company people enjoy working for’.

In my mind, there is no better way for leaders of SMEs to spend their time than in curating a great company culture. Funnily enough, our Breathe Culture Economy Report support this too:

‘The evidence is there. A strong organisational culture drives positive results across the spectrum of business metrics. Your culture is directly linked to sustained organisational success – however you measure success or growth.’

The steps required to build a great company culture are simple to say but certainly aren’t easy to action.

The best advice I can give is to just start – the first step is the hardest but remember experience inevitably leads to the greatest education of all.




Author: Aimée Brougham-Chandler

An IDM-certified Digital Copywriter (2023) & English Language & Literature graduate (BA Hons), Aimée is Breathe's Content Assistant. With 3 years' content marketing experience, Aimée has a passion for writing - and providing SME HR teams with solutions to their problems. She enjoys delving into & demystifying all things HR: from employee performance to health and wellbeing, leave to company culture & much more.

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