Culture Amp co-founder Didier Elzinga on why you should be telling a great startup story

Didier Elzinga

Culture Amp co-founder Didier Elzinga. Source: Supplied.

From humble beginnings in a garage in Cremorne, Melbourne startup Culture Amp has grown to be an international success story, with more than 120 staff across four offices globally.

But co-founder Didier Elzinga says the startup would not have got to where it is today without the power of storytelling.

Speaking to audiences at LaunchVic’s Yeah Nah summit in Melbourne last month, Elzinga shared the startup’s humble origin story, its vision for the future, and how it built a culture-first empire through telling a simple, authentic story.

Launched in 2009, Culture Amp’s mission is to build culturally diverse and inclusive companies through a platform that allows organisations to collect employee feedback via customisable surveys. These surveys then help management make more informed decisions about the people and culture within their company.

“The dent I wanted to make was to help other companies be culture first,” Elzinga told the audience.

“We wanted to do something at a scale that was meaningful and could impact and change the way people act.”

This startup story landed Culture Amp the likes of Medium and Hootsuite among its customers, and the startup has ambitious plans for the future. Elzinga says Culture Amp wants to be turning over $100 million annually by 2020, which is a significant jump from its current annual revenue of $10 million.

“That’s a number people in the Valley care about,” Elzinga said, referring to the $100 million revenue target.

Since launching in 2009, Culture Amp has secured multiple rounds of funding, most recently landing $26.4 million in a Series C funding round led by Silicon Valley venture capital firm Sapphire Ventures, after raising its first $8 million in Series A funding in 2015, and a further $US10 million in 2016.

It has been using these funds to grow its team and reach its goal of bringing on 10,000 customers in the next three or four years, after recently opening its Melbourne headquarters to add to existing offices in London, New York and San Francisco.

How has Culture Amp experienced such success in its fundraising, international expansion, and team-growing efforts? Elzinga says its all about telling a great story.

“There’s so much power in simple stories”

Elzinga told the Yeah Nah summit the key to convincing users, partners and investors to join a startup is the ability to tell a good story in an emotional, simple way.

“There’s so much power in simple stories — stories people can wrap their heads around,” he said.

Whatever your journey is, think about your story early on,” he advised budding entrepreneurs, saying this is essential to not only build a strong sense of company culture, but to also hone your pitch for customers and investors. 

When it comes to telling this story in an effective way, Elzinga stressed the importance of keeping it brief.

“If you want people to remember, give them three things. If you want them to forget, give them four,” he advised. 

Sticking to the story and persistently telling it at any chance you get is also crucial to getting your startup’s name out there, Elzinga said.

“Whatever your mission and story is, keep saying it till you’re physically sick of it. At that point people will hear it for the first time,” he said.  

“Take those stories and keep re-telling them so that people hear it as if for the first time.”

Incorporating an emotional, passionate angle to your startup’s story will also put founders in good stead, Elzinga added.

“People will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” he said. 

“Invest in the community”

A crucial part of a startup’s story is the community it builds, and the internal culture it fosters, Elzinga told the summit, encouraging founders to “invest in the community” they build within, and outside of, their startup.

“It’s not always the best product or company that wins, its sometimes the best community that wins,” he said.

Elzinga said founders need to find their “tribe”, which he described as “people that believe in the same thing we believe in”, in order to build a strong sense of community and connection with the startup ecosystem.

Another crucial aspect of Culture Amp’s story is diversity, yet Elzinga admits it “wasn’t something we thought about early on.”

As a team of “four white male brunettes working in IT” Elzinga said the startup wasn’t a poster-child for diversity at the outset, but as it grew, being diverse became a major pillar of the company.

If he had his time again, Elzinga said he would “own that [diversity] earlier” because “nothing but good comes from it”.

For founders looking to similarly promote diversity in their teams, or establish a strong sense of community and story from the outset, Elzinga suggests writing down values, and sitting down and asking yourself, “what do we believe?”

This will help grow a culture-first company from the bottom up, and make sure the team, and the founders, are all on the same page, working towards the same goal.

“As a founder, you’re not responsible for the results of your startup,” he told the summit.

“You are responsible for the people who are responsible for the results.” 

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