Culture is a word that is thrown around so much within our industry that it has become a parody of itself. From bizarro world news stories such as Dropbox’s cafeteria gaining a Michelin star, to the ping pong tables that are eternally associated with a tech office, it is often assumed that tech companies, and in particular startups, are innovative by default.
This is reinforced by sweeping proclamations from people such as Paul Graham, who seem to believe that there is nothing better to do with your twenties than to spend them hunched over a keyboard eating Ramen noodles.
But, as workers, we know that this is a fallacy. The startup industry to a large degree thrives on taking young, idealistic twenty-somethings and overworking them, to turn them into husks by the age of 30, at which point they rinse and repeat. This idea of culture is not sustainable so here are some things that have worked for us as a company to develop the culture to which we attribute much of both our personal and commercial success.
1: Flat Structure
Whilst this may seem obvious, and go hand in hand with much of what the agile manifesto dictates, it is all too easy to end up in an Animal Farm type scenario where within a flat structure, everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others. We strive to avoid this by maintaining parity across teams, hot desking and equal privileges across the board (more on that later).
There’s more to life than work. Contrary to the Gospel of Y-C, chapter 3:16, fun can be had away from adding value to a proposition. We go for a team lunch every Friday, regular drinks, and go to social events and meet ups together. This engenders a sense of brother/sister/humanhood, and has a commercial benefit too, since people perhaps give a little extra when they are working with and for friends.
With the flat structure also comes an equality of communication. Everyone has “equal access” to everyone else, everyone helps everyone else out, and crucially there is no social red line where perhaps one is scared to go and ask the founder something as opposed to someone else. This then naturally leads to…
There is no faster way of making someone feel like a wage slave than having barriers to knowledge where there really is no need. Obviously there is some information that needs to be kept private, but giving people access to all the company documents on a shared Google Docs account, access to a company credit card for expenses and as much transparency about business decisions as possible all contributes to helping to build a sense of partnership as opposed to a hierarchy. All of this is part of…
**5: Treating people like adults**
When I grew up I was told that you never really grow up, school is just like university, which is just like a job, all one endless system of which you are constantly climbing the greasy pole. I don’t know whether I had a particularly dystopian childhood, but the company trusting people with the aforementioned company credit cards, the ability to work from wherever they feel comfortable and unlimited holiday (within reason), all help to make it feel like less of an obligation and far more like a proactive choice to come into work, and to be treated with respect. I guess you could say that this sounds a bit like…
In a profession that is often viewed as a relatively brutal meritocracy, it is important to have compassion for those working alongside you. The Kindergarten doctrine is true, we all have our strengths and weaknesses and a company that enforces some kind of brutal Kafka-eque rank and yank system generally just serves as an engine for resentment and discontent. We have an excellent retention rate, and a key part of this is that people don’t feel as though they are in a nasty, competitive environment; they instead feel that they are on a team where we can all learn from each other. Whilst the John Lennon plays in the background we should move on to….
**7: Knowledge Sharing**
In order for developers to become better developers it is key for work to be an educational pursuit as much as a financial one. We are blessed to work in a profession where there is always something new to learn and as I alluded to in my previous message, there are always some people who are better at some things than others. Some examples of ways to share knowledge and learn new things would be regular pairing, mentor relationships with more experienced developers and regular code dojos/mob programming where we explore a new language or a block of code together. All of this adds up to…
At the end of the day, whether you are a bleeding heart liberal who wants everyone to get along, or a shrewd free marketeer, fulfilled employees are productive employees. It really doesn’t matter how you get there, but you need to get there. When I look at some of the jobs in Silicon Valley in particular, it seems almost like companies go out of their way to provide their employees with ridiculous benefits that they don’t need. Developers on $120k a year do not need free food, but it’s a race to offer the most outlandish thing as “perks”.
This list has shown that you can cultivate and foster a great culture without needing to break the bank hiring Michelin star chefs, or a plethora of table tennis bats, and by focussing instead on improving the common things that already are there. Whilst burning VC money to hire yoga therapists may seem like a great use of your money at the time, I think that many of the things here are almost counter intuitive.
Offering people unlimited holiday doesn’t mean people go crazy and take a year long sabbatical, they tend to take the normal amount, it just doesn’t feel forced in the same way it does when you’re extracting from your allowance.
The essence of this post is that your work-life should be based around people, not the other way around. You don’t need to spend millions or provide fancy perks to create a great culture that scales with your company. You just need to really, truly care about your workforce, and it’s somewhat sad how rare that is.