Leaf Software’s Ozan Selcuk on Why Startup CEOs Shouldn’t Overlook Culture

May 25

Ozan Selcuk knows a few things about the importance of organizational culture. Over his 23-year tenure at Leaf Software Solutions in Carmel, Indiana, the last four as CEO, his company has been recognized among the best places to work in Indiana. Not one time, but ten times. By achieving this feat, Leaf is one of only three small companies in the Indiana Chamber’s Hall of Fame.

Selcuk explains the decade-long streak of being among the best workplaces in Indiana:

“We are proud to be a principle-centered company. Our principles guide us throughout our corporate life, how we behave in the community, and how we treat our employees as well as our clients.”


Leaf’s principle-based culture is the foundation of the company’s longstanding success in the very competitive world of custom software development and enterprise resource planning, says Selcuk. “This is not only about doing the right thing, but also about creating a principled culture as a business decision with long-term implications. I encourage all startup CEOs to build a culture as they are building their companies as this will carry you through challenging times and good times.”

Selcuk, a VisionTech sponsor and member of the screening committee, recently sat down with us to share specific advice for startup CEOs and culture building.

Why startups must spend scarce time on creating a culture.
If you’ve never started or run a company before, it’s easy to think culture is some kind of mumbo jumbo. Startups are fun, but they’re also volatile. Culture dictates how you treat people and how you communicate. Culture creates cohesive, inclusive companies. It’s what carries you through difficult times. I advise startup CEOs and founders to set their culture and exercise it during good times as well as challenging times. Don’t put a sign on the wall and call it done.

You equate a company’s culture to love.
Very much so. Like love, culture needs to be nurtured and invested in constantly otherwise it deteriorates.

Culture is different than business strategy.
Startups tend to focus on their product, processes, efficiency, and fundraising but without the right culture, none of these can be positive. As Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” No matter how effective your strategy may be, people and how they treat and work with each other, and respond in challenging times is what makes the difference.

Where do company cultures come from?
Culture comes from what’s important to the company founders. It starts with leadership and grows at the grassroots. My advice to startup founders is to sit down and discuss with your partners what’s important to you, what you value, what should be a driving force, and finally, how to build that into your company. It’s very personal; there is no recipe and it’s different for every company.

You can’t fake culture.
Culture is something you live day in and day out. If you’re faking it and there’s a crisis, culture goes out the window. At Leaf, we include our culture on our website, put it into action so there’s culture “momentum” among our team and constantly talk about it in our staff meetings. Here’s an example, when doing postmortems on recent projects, we evaluate how we did based on our culture. Could we have done things differently? If so, how? Such discussions make culture real.

“Leaders must swim in an ocean of humility and constantly act as servants to clients, employees and community. Your job as a CEO or founder is to be a cheerleader to your culture. Be natural. Lead by example. Get out of people’s way. Make sure you do not de-motivate people. Leaders who yell or otherwise act badly are setting a bad example.
If that’s your behavior, how do you expect employees to treat each other and clients?”


Discuss what is important with your team.
Our people are analytical, so we’ve always done our best to communicate in a structured, organized fashion. People enjoy it and absorb more. What should you discuss? Business topics such as product design, strategy and fundraising, but also company values and how they apply to what you’re doing as a company. Don’t forget that discussions are two-way; actively engage people to see if they have anything to add or challenge. Create an environment where different points of view are valued. At Leaf, we realized the value of structured communication became even more important during the pandemic as we learned what resonated for the people in our company.

Don’t make everyday business as usual.
Prior to COVID, we hosted a catered breakfast on Fridays. It gave everyone an opportunity to relax and chat about family, what they were reading, the upcoming weekend. We also have a gym onsite and games people can play. Now, since we’re still working remotely, we do a half-hour Zoom on Fridays where we feature one employee a week. It’s harder to maintain culture remotely, but you can do it if you work at it.

Not sure where to begin with your startup’s culture? Get a mentor.
Startups CEOs often have lots of mentors who coach them on their business plan, product-market fit, funding strategy, marketing, and legal matters. Don’t overlook having a culture mentor. It can be the leader of a company you admire. Or, turn to a group like VisionTech Angels whose members are happy to share their knowledge and experiences.

Last word?
I’m looking forward to getting back in the office and having fun with the team.

VisionTech is honored to have Leaf Software Solutions as a sponsor, investor and now culture mentor. You can learn more about Leaf Software Solutions here.