Billion dollar valuations. $41 million funding rounds. There’s been a lot of talk about if we’re in another bubble or not, and articles like Geoffrey Fowler’s recent Wall Street Journal piece tend to extol the uncanny resemblances to the 1999 tech boom.
But I think Mustache Mondays, in-office pool tables, and parties DJed by M.C. Hammer aren’t so much a reflection on the extravagance of the space as a reflection on the start-up attitude and its intense expectations of employees.
Work Hard, Play Hard
For many start-ups, like Airbnb and social monetization company Peanut Labs, it’s about putting in the hours, but knowing when it’s time to let loose and have a good time. And although it’s a great way to make employees happy, it’s not all about them.
At Airbnb’s party celebrating its new headquarters yesterday, champagne, beer, and wine were free-flowing. Guests got to take a look at the company’s swanky new digs, which include a number of conference room replicas of their listings across the globe, including a quirky SoHo loft and a stylish apartment in Berlin.
In June, Peanut Labs provided a fun-filled evening aboard a yacht. The “Pirates of Silicon Valley” cruise, as it’s known, not only lets employees wind down, dance, and ogle the San Francisco skyline from the bay; it’s a great networking and recruiting opportunity (for those who can swallow the $600 ticket price, if they didn’t get an invite).
Other start-ups regularly hold launch parties, house-warming parties, and events to celebrate big milestones, but that’s just it — parties of this calibre are a special occasion, not the norm.
It still may seem extravagant to outsiders, but throwing such “epic” parties is a way for start-ups to get their name out there and make contacts with potential employees and investors. Good talent is hard to come by; good talent that’s available for hire? Forget about it. Start-ups and larger corporations alike are always hunting and recruiting new employees.
You want to show the talent how much they’re missing by not being a part of your team. And as for investors: Well, if you can afford to throw this shindig, you must be doing well, right?
It’s All About the Atmosphere
“It’s amazing how much more inspiration comes from sitting and chatting on a couple of couches instead of hunched over a cold conference table,” Airbnb employee Emily Joffrion said about one of her favorite conference rooms in the office.
And that seems to be true. These innovative little start-ups that began with an idea and someone’s garage weren’t methodically hatched by corporate executives in a board room. Once companies get Microsoft or Google-sized, they’re not innovators anymore — it’s the little guys who have all the big ideas. (And then the big guys can buy them out and capitalize on those dreams, and the talent, but that’s another story.)
I couldn’t count how many developers looked around at Airbnb’s digs and said, “Man, I wish I worked here.” Even the lady’s restroom was impressive, with a perfume bar, cotton swabs, face wash, make-up brushes, and yes (sorry guys) feminine hygiene products all free for employees to take advantage of.
Start-ups demand long hours of their employees, and employees aren’t going to hang around until 9 or 10pm at night if the office isn’t a nice place to be.
For start-ups, it’s all about open spaces (being able to see and talk with your coworkers and managers, keeping communication easy), convenience (if the kitchen is stocked, why should I leave for lunch, or even dinner?), and a pleasing design (painted walls, inspirational artwork, and big windows, things that keep employee dispositions sunny).
A start-up’s office isn’t just an “office” — it’s a reflection of its ethos, its outlook, its company expectations.
Engineers Aren’t Robots. They Can’t Code All Day Long
OK, some of them can, but they are few and far between. For most engineers — Silicon Valley and elsewhere — the day needs to be balanced.
When you come to a road block in your code, the answer isn’t going to come by staring at your blinking cursor in VIM.
So typical start-ups offer a way for engineers to let their brains relax until the road block is lifted, typically in the form of video games, foosball, pool, or skee ball… and maybe a keg of beer on tap.
For many, playing video games intermittently throughout the workday is a great way to let the mind retreat into a zen state. When you’re done playing, you have the answer you were looking for. If that doesn’t work, you can always aim for the Ballmer Peak.
If an employer expects its team to work long hours, work weekends, they’ve got to provide them with amenities that make that a comfortable experience. And beer and gaming breaks are one logical way to do that.
It seems like a lot of people outside of the tech sphere don’t understand that, especially in the start-up world, people love their jobs, and don’t mind spending all day and all night working on it. They’re working on a project they’re passionate about. It’s not just a job. And so start-up culture reflects that mentality.
Start-up culture and start-up priorities haven’t changed, from 1999 to 2005 to 2011. Heck, even all the way back to Jobs’ and Woz’s days in the ‘70s.
There’s a reason innovation doesn’t spring from stark corporate cubicles. Good start-ups try to make their office warm, homey, and friendly, so their employees are happy and devoted. Whether we’re in a bubble or not is a non-issue.