StartUp Culture: An Evening with 3 Founders

We recently hosted a panel discussion in Houston about startup culture to address how it differs from corporate culture and discuss what all businesses can learn from it. An energetic crowd of attendees readily absorbed the insights that flowed from our three panelists. If you were unable to attend the event, below is a recap of the discussion.

Our three panelists included:


Kirk Coburn (
Founder & Managing Director, SURGE Ventures
Kirk Coburn is an active angel investor and entrepreneur who founded three successful companies before starting SURGE Ventures, the leading seed stage venture fund and mentor-driven accelerator focused on enabling entrepreneurs to solve the world s energy problems. SURGE has repeatedly been ranked as one of the top accelerators in North America and the #1 energy accelerator in the world. 


Tim deSilva (http:///
Culture Pilot
Tim DeSilva has a formal education in art and design, and as founder of Culture Pilot, has led a professional career in consulting, speaking and working on passions in brand development, user-centered design, brand strategy, and innovation in cloud technology. He is an advocate for the creative economy of Houston and in collaboration with Culture Pilot and creative thought leaders, is a co-curator of TEDxHouston. 

stephen-white-qukku.pngStephen White (
Stephen is the founder and CXO of Qukku, a smart collaboration app for smart teams. Qukku thoughtfully combines collaboration, feedback and guidance in a web-based application so that teams get more done faster, together.  As the Chief Experience Officer, Stephen leads the product development team while also being responsible for marketing and community development.

mike-bistline.jpgMike Bistline moderated the panel. Mike is a brand evangelist for Turnstone, a line of office furniture developed by Steelcase to meet the needs of entrepreneurial offices as well as “intrepreneurial” pockets within larger corporations who want to inspire creativity and innovation.


Mike Bistline started the discussion asking the panelists about the impact of workplace culture on startups. 

Tim deSilva: Workplace culture is foundational. It comes from the personality of the founders and has to be paid attention to. How will you operate? What are the type of clients you want to draw?  [These questions are] essential to the business plan. 

Kirk Coburn: Tony Hsieh had a great quote from his company Zappos. “The only way I know how to change culture is to start over.” Culture rarely can be evolved. Enron went from a regulated to deregulated industry and went off the tracks. They’re a great example of why a company needs a solid culture.

Stephen White: Take the culture and infusing it into the foundation of your company. Find others who want to join you on that journey. You have to find others who will buy into that vision. That they will drink the kool-aid and get the outcomes they’re looking for. That the time they’ll spend with you, they’ll get something they can’t get anywhere else.


Mike: If culture is such a pull, when does it have a life of it’s own? 

Kirk: As an investor in over 50 companies, I’ve learned that teams are everything. When I was at Dell as a junior executive, I was the best entrepreneur – until I quit. Then there were no processes or procedures – we had to create them from scratch. “Where’s my assistant?” “How do we get paper into that printer?” Investing in people is the most important aspect of culture. As startups, we’re afraid to do that. The companies I invest the most money into are ones that are hiring the people. 

Tim: Our hiring process is as casual as we want it to be. We don’t care if you have a resume or not. IT is about having a conversation to figure out if they have the skills and ability to get the job done. Finding the right people is extremely challenging. 

Kirk: Exxon is having a hard time getting the best talent. They’re getting B / C players. Everyone else wants to go find a way to change the world. They don’t believe they can do that in Houston. Exxon built a great campus, but Millennials don’t want to work in the Woodlands. They’re willing to work for $50k, if it’s for something they believe in. They want to be in a cool entrepreneurial environment like Turnstone helps create, as long as it’s midtown.

Stephen: Millennials want to buy into the narrative. Authenticity matters. Our team collaboration tool we’re very excited about… it’s something we believe people can “live in it.” We talked to millennials how they wanted to be heard within our tool. They want to be creative. They don’t want to be constrained by tradition. They feel like they can make contributions through our tool, which is important because they want to be heard. 



Mike: Is there something specific in your company you do to build and maintain the culture? 

Tim: I shifted more into an operations role, which I’m not trained for, but it was the most appropriate thing. Rubbermaid started a system Google adopted to use 20% of your work week on a side project, and see what it would turn into. We launched these 20 minute talks on Fridays, working with TEDx Houston. More recently we have been diving into laser cutting and tool sets you usually wouldn’t see in an agency environment. We encourage our employees to have their passion and pursue a whole new set of skills. As of 2014, we transitioned into a cloud-based agency. Thankfully our systems and processes work with that. It sets us apart from the other agencies in Houston. Millennials come to us and want to work out of their home office, and that’s exactly what we’re looking for.

Kirk: We try to get rid of people who are “takers.” They’re a drain on everyone. A taker will say, “Here are my terms. Decide on me or not.” They want you to choose something in their favor. Givers will want you to choose based on what’s best for you. “Givers” are awesome. These two guys [Tim and Stephen] are awesome, because they’re giving to the startup community. I don’t want to have a [closed] office. I want to sit out where all the activity is. It energizes folks. Our office is getting cooler. I wish we had some of this cool Turnstone stuff. Was that a good plug? (laughter) 



Mike: What’s the impact of culture on an organization? 

Stephen: One of the areas I struggled with was learning to draw the line as the boss. I just want people to show up and want to work their ass off. Just because you’re passionate, your employees may not be. Not as much as you are. I didn’t want to give up a certain frivolity our team had. We still wanted to have fun but get [stuff] done. We may work in an open environment with our headphones on, but we have fun. Everyone wants to have fun, but make sure they’re making progress in the right direction. That’s where the boss comes in. 

Tim: I agree with so much of that. We want to have fun, but you have to make sure there’s a structure. You want to have some time out of the office, but don’t make it so formal. Now, since we work remotely, we have to find time to get together that’s not just another work meeting. We want it to be grabbing a drink or a ball game. 

Stephen: One of our key aspects of our culture is coffee. One of our interview questions just states, “Coffee?” if they say they don’t like it, then the conversation can just die there. The point is, we take that moment – a simple luxury Starbucks tapped into- and we want to have the opportunity to watch the water boil, grind the coffee and have a conversation. 


Mike: What does authenticity mean to you? 

Kirk: I think it means you’re here to give and not to take. There’s a big battle in this city between generations. Baby boomers vs. millennials. When oil was $100/barrel you’re lucky to have a job, but when it’s $30 we’re laying you off. Millennials are saying, “I don’t have to deal with this.” Authenticity is giving more than you take... engaging the future of a city or an industry. I’m Gen X and we’re jaded. We won’t believe you unless we see it. But millennials are the future. When you talk about alternative energy, they see that as a way to give and they latch onto it. It’s authentic and they know it. The difference between an entrepreneur and everyone else is we’re actually paying for stuff. When you do that, things get real very quick. Authenticity is the language of this generations. They’re spoiled brats, but they’re authentic. If you won’t be real with them, they won’t want to work with you.  

Tim: I think it’s the difference in having sympathy versus empathy. Brene Brown says the difference is empathy recognizes someone else’s perspective is their truth. Empathy is a much higher level of connecting with others. Those are the people I want to be around. 


Mike: How do you merge cultures?

Tim: We have someone who does a training process on how to hire millennials. Whoever [you hire] into the organization has to be as right as the people already in there. Making sure they’re the right people with the right mindset. Are they going to be drawn into he organization in the current state? They won’t if it’s not cool. 

Kirk: Jason Dorsey spoke on Milennials at SURGE Day. He said the most important moment for a millennial at their job is the first 5 minutes. At Dell, I didn’t get a business card for 3 months. Millennials want it the first day… or they would love to have the first day off as a celebration of them joining the organization. But that seems like a big risk to CEOs.

Stephen: One thing millennials bring into an organization that is a nice change... they’re not constrained by structure and order. Hiring millennials seemed scary a few years ago. I think it’s a fallacy that you have to pander to them. They’re open to being held to account. They are growing up with Uber and Air BnB, where you can leave a review, but your critique can be reviewed back. You can’t be at the table giving all your opinions without putting in the effort and being held accountable. 

Tim: Companies are going to have to continually evolve if they want to survive. Who here works somewhere where they monitor your internet activity? Remember when offices said no mobile devices? 



Mike: We’d like to end with one piece of advice from each of you. 

Tim: Find people you relate to in the hiring process. That drives a lot - the personality of the people you hire - the talent you are hiring for. Like Stephen was saying, if your employee’s voices can be heard, that is huge. There’s leadership value in that.

 Kirk: If you believe people really are the most important asset in your company, what are you doing about finding and retaining the best people? That’s what keeps me up at night.

Stephen: My brother mentioned the platinum rule – treat people the way they want to be treated themselves. Be mindful they all have outside passions and interests. The more you get to know them, the more they’ll want to know about you and about being successful.

Mike: We want you all to continue the conversation... about startup culture… about millennials and the generation coming, the homelanders. (ruckus) Yes, that’s a real thing. We’ll (Turnstone) continue to focus on how startup culture can impact entrepreneurial - or the other side of the coin - the intrepreneurial environment.


  1. Tony Hsieh's book Delivering Happiness
  2. Forbes article on Google's 20% Time: Google's Best New Innovation: Rules Around '20% Time'
  3. RSA Animated Short of Brene Brown's talk regarding sympathy vs. empathy
  4. Tendenci Blog: Is Your Fundraising Platform Ready for My Generation? (Jason Dorsey at SURGE Day)
  5. Tony Alessandra book The Platinum Rule: Discover the Four Basic Business Personalities and How They Can Lead You to Success

Office Wellbeing Quiz


How well Is Your Office?

Find Out with Our Office Wellbeing Quiz!