Company culture is a huge factor when it comes to recruiting and retaining employees and building an organization’s public reputation. But does culture matter for freelancers, consultants and contract workers in the gig economy — those who have a company of one?
Yes, says Marion McGovern, author of “Thriving in the Gig Economy.” “The whole culture thing goes hand-in-hand with your brand,” she says, even if you’re small. “Culture is what makes people resonate with your mission. If that’s true for big companies, why shouldn’t it be true for a small one? Even if you’re a company of one, you’re still in a community of clients and other people who can help you serve those clients.”
Whether you’re just starting out on your own or have been working solo for years, culture is still vital to the work you do. Here’s what you need to know about how culture works in a company of one.
Culture Brings Multiple Benefits
Large organizations focus on company culture because having happy employees makes them more productive. A strong company culture can also help a company sharpen its brand and stand out in its market, and a company of one can take advantage of these benefits as well. “If you believe what organizational experts say, culture is really the most important thing in defining a company and creating the best experience for your customer,” McGovern says. “Every company, even if it’s just your company of one, should focus on it.”
This can sometimes be a challenge, especially for freelancers or contract workers who left full-time employment because they didn’t want to be a part of corporate life anymore, McGovern says. But if you’ve made the choice and decided that being a company of one is your path, configuring a company culture will help you think about issues important to your business, she says.
Your Culture Communicates Your Value
When you set out on your own, you probably knew how you wanted to run your business. For many, that looks like wanting to make more money on their own or having more control over their time, McGovern says. But as the day-to-day reality of running a business set in, those ideas may have changed or gotten pushed aside as you worked to keep the lights on. Establishing values — for yourself, for the kind of work you want to take on and how you’ll do that work — will give you guideposts for your business and help you set a culture.
You likely have a good idea of your own values; they’re what pushed you to work on your own. For organizational values, look at what makes your company stand out, McGovern says — the “special sauce” that you add to get results for your customers. It might be collaboration, inquiry or creativity, for example. Whatever it is, it can serve as a stake for your company culture that guides how you work, the kinds of projects you take on an the clients you work with.
Scott Poniewaz, founder of Austin-based The Pony Group, is intentional about his culture of one. “When starting my freelance and consulting career, I knew that the area of marketing was crowded, so I needed to decide if I was going to be a scrappy growth hacker or develop my brand and persona around a more professional demeanor,” he says. “I went with the latter.”
While he works with many startups, his polished website design and “Fractional CMO” tagline communicate gravitas for larger, more established clients. His office space plays a role as well: “I easily could be in a hip co-working space, but instead chose a more professional office” in a building that’s home to banks, investment funds, title companies and lawyers, he says. “It’s not as hip, but it provides me the opportunity to attract and work with serious and well-funded clients.”
Your Company Is Part of a Larger Community
Just because you’re a company of one doesn’t mean you’re a single player. You’re part of a larger community, and having a strong culture will help you find partners, clients and connections that can build your business. “That culture matters not just to you but to the community that you are a part of,” McGovern says.
It can be helpful to go to your community — former co-workers, clients and colleagues — and get their input on the value you bring and how they see you as you define your culture. “It might feel awkward, like you’re fishing for compliments, but you’re fishing for competence,” McGovern says. Ask people what they would hire you for, what they think you do best, and what suggestions they have to strengthen and highlight your culture. “People buy from people. When you’re an independent, in essence, you’re selling yourself,” McGovern says.