Building a Startup That Learns

Kristen Swanson
2 min readDec 23, 2017


PC: Founder Factory 2017 in Philadelphia

In a startup, life comes at you fast. With a blink, what was once important becomes irrelevant. The pace quickens with each stride, like a marathoner exceeding a personal best.

In the heat of the chase, I’ve heard busy startup leaders describe learning as “a luxury,” “fluff,” or “something mature companies do.” I’d argue this is a critical miscalculation.

When a startup stops learning; it starts dying.

A culture that craves learning is adaptable, flexible, and resilient. In short, it’s more likely to succeed (all other things considered equal). As a startup leader, cultivating a learning environment is one of the most powerful things you can do for your team.

Tactically, there are three areas of focus when designing a learning culture:

  1. How we work together
  2. What our customers need
  3. How we implement change

How we work together

In a learning organization, people are curious about their teammates. Such curiosity and acceptance leads to psychological safety, the bedrock of effective teams. Being explicit about how each person works best will help you execute when times get tough.

✐ TIP: Try having each member of your team create a user manual (here’s mine) and share them at your next team meeting.

What our customers need

While being curious about each other is important, it’s not enough. You must also have an insatiable appetite for learning about your customers. Never assume you’ve “finished” uncovering use cases or user motivations. Humans are infinitely tricky, and understanding their needs is the heartbeat of every business.

✐ TIP: Have everyone in your organization take a support shift with customers. Debrief on learnings.

✐ TIP: Whenever possible, use your product internally. People are best at fixing their own problems.

How we implement change

Learning organizations schedule change. When you’re constantly uncovering new information, you need predictable ways to reorient the business. If you go longer than a few weeks without making a change to the way you work or how you serve your customers, you’ve probably stopped learning.

✐ TIP: Hold a monthly retro with your team. Use it as a natural inflection point for enacting new learnings.

Let’s build a learning culture. The future of work demands it.



Kristen Swanson

Organizational Development Nerd, Edcamp Co-Founder, & Learning Scientist