Uncharted Waters

Mar 28 2016   7:44AM GMT

Building a Startup Culture

Justin Rohrman Justin Rohrman Profile: Justin Rohrman

Tags:
IT culture
Startup

I read a news story this morning about one persons experience working at HubSpot, a company that seems to drip ‘startup’. The story mostly follows Dan’s first day of touring the office and meeting new co workers. The tour was a walk through isles of ‘cool’ looking young people with styled hair and fashionable clothes, nap rooms with hammocks and music rooms for people to blow off steam, and gaming areas with foosball tables and video games.

I’ve been through that same tour a few of times now. At this point, I’m a little more salty and maybe not cynical but realistic. The article made me realize two things about startup culture.

When Facebook first came out there was a massive upswing in users and interest. The social bubble became a thing, and Facebook and other similar companies started getting valuations in the billions. Wait, what? How does a company making money, let alone worth billions of dollars when the millions of people that log in every single day don’t pay one cent for the product.

Most people now of course realize that if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product. Facebook is making money off of the people that visit by collecting their personal information and using that to sell targeted advertising campaigns.

Most startups function exactly like this. The product isn’t the product. The product of the modern software startup is their culture. Startups are designed for what’s called a liquidity event. That fancy phrase translates either to being bought by a larger company, or in rare cases going public to be listed on a stock exchange.  To get bought, you have to look attractive to buyers.

The last three start ups were big on building ‘culture’. All of the tech staff was remote at one of these companies when I started. The contributors were of course happy with that arrangement, but the CEO wanted to project an image of legitimacy. We ended up getting an office which was referred to as the clubhouse. The only requirement was that we showed up there once a week. So, every Wednesday we met at the office, and left around lunch, partly for food and partly to drink.

At another company, I interviewed in the break room which was filled with couches, a TV, and a few different video game systems. It seemed like a reasonable break room but I after the first few weeks it was frustrating to be working on a release and finding bugs and then have to go drag a programmer away from a game in progress to do some work. Both of those companies eventually got merged slash acquired by other companies. There were rounds of funding, followed by rounds of parties and new office toys, and then the investors tool tours, and then the merger announcements.

Venture backed startups are like a giant slot machine. They pump money in partly to build product, but also partly to build up the real product; the company they are going to sell a few years down the road.

The poet Juvenal wrote this as part of  Satire X

Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.

Bread and circuses is a reference to everything that the ruling party was doing to entertain and fill the stomachs of the  people they ruled over, but didn’t actually give them any value. I think of that poem every time I see a video game console or nap room in a startup. If you tour a company and see people working hard in an environment that doesn’t look like adult Chucky Cheese, maybe, just maybe, they are actually building a product.

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  • MKMack
    Justin, 

    Great insight and meaningful piece to me since I am a self-described "cool-looking young person" who works for a startup in Chicago. As a content writer and PR manager for my company, I empathize with the difficulties you faced trying to accomplish tasks amidst the noise and game play.

    I think you're missing something here, or, at least, you're only looking on the surface of these startups and not questioning actual employee experience. I can speak to this type of workplace and I can also tell you that our "perks" aren't our culture; rather, they are our greatest motivators. The ping-pong table, the arcade games, the Nerf wars interrupting the post-lunch slump - this fuels our competitive spirit that therein drives us professionally. More so, our company perks help to foster good working relationships that extend outside the office. Perks are also viewed as rewards, driving us to perform well so that we can have the greatest impact on our clients and our community through our charitable initiatives. 

    There's much more than meets the eye (or ear!) when it comes to the perceived grown-up play land that some startups portray, and I guarantee there are others who would agree.
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