The most common reason reason that startups fail, according to a 2014 CB Insights study, isn’t inadequate cash, nor the competition, nor poor product. It’s  “no market need.” Put another way, it’s a failure to understand the connection between the startup’s product and the customers’ needs, beliefs, and behaviors — their culture.

Source: CB Insights

That’s one way, and probably the most common way, we  understand “culture”: the integrated patterns of human knowledge, belief, and behavior. It’s also said that every organization, every company, has its own culture. The successful ones have cultures that are vibrant, affirming and healthy.

Every startup would do well to understand its own internal culture as well as its customers’. That culture should be enshrined in the mission statement — not just a vision of what you do or create, but an articulation of what you believe, what you value.

For startups, “culture” should be a verb as it is in biology, meaning to maintain tissue cells, bacteria or viruses in conditions suitable for growth. Think yogurt. It’s something you cultivate.

The realization that understanding culture can be a key to high performance is the reason so many successful organizations and major corporations employ so many social scientists, particularly anthropologists.

Google,” as Business Insider once reported, “hired an ethnographer to ferret out the meaning of mobile. Intel has an in-house cultural anthropologist, and Microsoft is reportedly the second-largest employer of anthropologists in the world.” The Inquirer (UK) noted back in 2004 that “Intel is not the only company that has anthropologists” but also Kodak and Hallmark.

Nothing new, right?

What is new is how social science, particularly anthropology, is informing healthcare, especially public health. Here medical anthropology reigns supreme. The specialty has been around since at least the 1950s and has grown enormously, along the way making some important contributions to the field; for example,

  • Use of ethnography for the systematic collection of field data.
  • Application of qualitative methods for the collection and analysis of descriptive, interpretative, and formative data.
  • Integration of qualitative and quantitative approaches.
  • Ability to translate scientific knowledge into effective practice at the community level.

What anthropologists and healthcare professionals share in common is a focus on people and their concerns. Anthropologists offer the added strength of addressing problems that don’t always lend themselves to controlled clinical trials.

It’s all about cultural sensitivity. The late nurse-anthropologist Madeleine Leininger, founder of transcultural nursing, recognized that “patients’ cultural background can have a profound effect on how they describe symptoms, respond to pain and understand diagnoses. This in turn requires nurses to reconsider how they provide care and what ‘care’ even means.”

Whether you’re a nurse delivering hands-on patient care or a tech startup specializing in wearable medical sensors, the care must be culturally meaningful. Medical anthropologists like Carmit McMullen of Kaiser Permanente help us to understand “how culture and biology work together to shape health and disease across the world and over time.” The understanding comes not only from data but from stories, from lived experiences.

It’s no wonder that so many nurses study anthropology and that some anthropologists also go into nursing.

Once you’re in an anthropological state of mind, it’s easy to see why startups are essentially tribal. That’s how Kevin Simler, a writer and technologist with the data-engineering firm Palantir, sees mid-sized startups. In a Ribbon Farm article he writes that “tribal psychology dominates in mid-sized organizations — between 10 and 1000 employees, let’s say,” and that startups exhibit all the defining traits of the tribe, complete with rituals and behaviors akin to religion.

Granted, all startups also share certain commonalities inherent to startups: All must be obsessively concerned with customer discovery, hypothesis testing, rapid iteration, getting product to market, and so on. Still, the tribal metaphor holds true regarding each startup’s unique, cultural personality.

At tekMountain, we believe that bridging the gap between social science and tech is crucial for innovation, especially in healthcare. We find value in helping each startup to express clearly its own tribal culture. So if you ask us, “What is the connection between anthropologists and global health,” we’ll say that you’re already enlightened to the promise of innovation. Then it’s just a matter of speaking with us about the rituals of capitalizing on that realization and immersing yourself in your customers’ needs, beliefs and behaviors.


This blog was produced by the tekMountain Team of Sean AhlumAmanda SipesZach Cioffi and Beth Roddy with lead writer Bill DiNome.

Comments are closed.