On Startup Culture

27 May 2014

The general public's understanding of "startup culture" is centered around the stories they hear about free lunches, nap pods, and exercise ball desk chairs. When I was about to join a startup, I wasn't sure what to expect, but I was fairly certain that the culture would be different from the very corporate cultures of my previous jobs.

I wasn't disappointed. My experience in the startup world has been a positive one, and I'm sure that our company's culture has been a big part of that. I wanted to pull back the curtain a bit and describe some key aspects of "startup culture" that I think contribute a lot to company morale and a positive work environment.

People are motivated to work hard, for the sake of the company.

As an entry-level analyst at a large company, I wanted to work hard and do a good job, but that motivation was necessarily a more self-centered one: I didn't feel like I could make a significant positive impact on my own. The company was a large, nebulous entity, and it was hard to see how my actions as a small cog could make a difference.

At a startup, you look around the office and you can see the entirety of the company. You're more familiar with how almost everything works, and you can see a more direct causative link between what you do and the company's revenue. Moreover, you get to know everybody at the company better, and this closeness makes you care a lot more about how the company does. You just want the company's success more, and your mental approach to work will reflect this.

People have a lot more initiative.

When people care more, they are more willing to take on projects, even ones outside the scope of their normal duties. Moreover, I get the sense that when startup employees take on extra projects, it is not for selfish reasons (e.g. a bonus, a faster promotion, bragging rights). They legitimately want to step up and help solve a problem the company is having.

To give a more concrete example, in investment banking, there were not that many other responsibilities to take on as an analyst. Almost all of your work came in the form of the projects you were assigned, and on the side you might help out a bit with school recruiting or an "Analyst Council". These side responsibilities felt more like extracurriculars and were a fun way to take a break from other projects.

At our startup, there are often side projects that are much more substantive. Somebody might volunteer to do a deeper analytical dive into the numbers in an attempt to help the company better understand what's going on. Another person might volunteer to refactor a particularly messy part of the codebase. People are more willing to take on these tasks because they think these additional projects are helpful for the success of the company.

Communication is more open and less hierarchical.

Unsurprisingly, because startups are smaller, there is less hierarchy, and more open communication between everyone. Communication norms at our startup develop based on what's most convenient for everyone, not based on title or seniority.

A corollary of this point is that it feels like everyone's opinion is valued at a startup. This is almost a cliche point, but at a startup there is a certain level of trust that you're smart, that you have the company's best interests at heart, and that you have thought through what you're saying. Knowing that you have a valued opinion is both empowering and at times a bit stressful.

Mistakes are not treated as the end of the world, as long as you're honest about them.

In some industries, you hear about companies where senior managers will literally yell at a report for doing something wrong. While being careful with work is important, mistakes will inevitably occur, some of which will unfortunately make it up to a manager.

I've found our startup to be a bit more tolerant about employee mistakes. Whether it's a wrong number in an analysis or a bug rolled out to the live website, mistakes are taken in stride - as long as the person making the mistake owns up to it promptly and honestly. Mistakes are fixed quickly, and with larger mistakes, appropriate parties help to think of ways to prevent the same mistake in the future.

At our startup, we have a unique way of dealing with mistakes: we pay a nominal fee. We all have Venmo accounts, and whenever we make a mistake, we pay one dollar to a collective account specially set up for this. Enforcement is generally through the honesty policy: if I feel like I've let a mistake slip through in my work, I'll pay a dollar. It's a good way to publicly acknowledge a mistake, express an appropriate amount of contrition, and then move on.

Everyone hustles.

Facebook famously held the philosophy of "Move fast and break things". The idea is that they would rather quickly test lots of new features and ideas, even at the cost of poorer code quality or occasionally releasing some bugs.

Not all startups subscribe to this philosophy, but most do have a sense of urgency. To exaggerate a bit, working at a startup sometimes feels like fighting for your collective life. Markets and consumers' tastes change quickly, and a competitor to your startup could pop up at any point.

This hustle can be invigorating and can really unite a company. In the long term, it might increase the chances of burnout, but day-to-day it makes going to work exciting and dynamic - there's no telling what will happen today.

Yes, there are perks.

The point on perks is last, because they are nice but not actually as integral to startup culture as the points above. Perks can really run the gamut. Startups will often have some free meals and a well-stocked pantry, filled with snacks and beverages that employees request. The company might pay for certain services such as dry-cleaning or TaskRabbits / FancyHands. The office might have cool things like nap pods, ping-pong tables, or video games. There can also be great company policies. A flexible vacation policy is one example: employees can theoretically take however much vacation they want in a year, when they want it.

These perks are certainly enjoyable, but they speak to a more abstract idea that startups want their employees to enjoy their time at work. Employees at startups often work long hours, and perks not only alleviate the need to worry about some life needs (e.g. cooking meals, having laundry sent out), but they can also help reduce burnout. There's also the sense that a startup is a family, and perks are one way of showing that the company values and cares about its employees.

Not all of these are true for every startup, but the points above do illustrate the kinds of cultural differences between a tech startup and a large, established company in a more traditional industry (e.g. finance). If you're looking to jump into the tech industry, keep in mind that a company's culture is very important in determining your happiness and success there.

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