Startup Culture Scalability

Can small-company culture grow with an organization?

Think about working at a startup.

If you’re like me, you imagine a modern, interesting office space—probably in a hip San Francisco neighborhood—complete with nerf wars and a healthy supply of craft beer. Sure, the base salary may be lower than this fictitious company’s larger competitors, but the casual working environment, potential for wealth (through equity), and “fun” environment make it all worth it. Right?

My company used to fit most of this stereotype… when it was founded, thirteen years ago. In fact, many of these features stuck around until about three years ago, when our success started transforming us into a larger, more “serious” organization.

I had recently been promoted to a managerial role, and tasked with growing our services and methodologies to meet industry need, while still recruiting top engineering talent. Much like software, security engineers worth hiring know how much they’re worth—and they want the best perks they can get.

We used to play Mario Kart for fifteen minutes about five times per day; we used to play volleyball on the beach for a whole afternoon once a week; we’d take long, luxurious lunches and no one cared when we we got into the office or when we left—our best work happened in the middle of the night, anyway. As a small organization, this work style fit us great. Except for one small detail.

We weren’t happy.

We loved the perks, but for a reason that was a mystery to us for an embarrassingly long time, there was a ubiquitous feeling of dissatisfaction. I’ll spare you the tedious process of realizing that our work was not fulfilling. The short version is that even though we had the culture we wanted, our business was not succeeding at the rate we had hoped and it was becoming difficult to resist the pull of higher compensation at a larger organization.

Our solution was to buckle down and evolve into the successful business that we knew could become. Unfortunately, when you are pushing as hard as you can to be a success—making changes like changing our client base from small local banks to Fortune 100 behemoths—you can’t disappear for an afternoon to play volleyball any time the weather happens to be nice. You can’t tell an organization that’s paying you huge sums of money that their deliverable was delayed because we needed “just one more lap” in Mario Kart, or that we can’t make their 10:00am Eastern meeting time because most of the engineers aren’t in until 10 Pacific.

In making these adjustments, we probably went too far in the other direction. Attrition rates in engineering increased sharply, and it became obvious that we were taking the company culture too far from its roots—and from the type of organization we wanted to be part of. Little by little, we reintegrated our old “startup vibes,” each time carefully weighing the potential impact to both business and morale.

The big stuff came first, and was easiest to implement: scheduled afternoons of beach volleyball, generally very early in the month (when we weren’t on “crunch time”); flexible working hours for engineers, as long as they were on call in case a client needed us urgently; all expenses paid trips to industry conferences.

The difference is that we stopped thinking about the office as a playground, and started seeing it as a comfortable and relaxed place to work and conduct business. So many people forget that while, yes, you want to enjoy your job, that’s not why you have one. As an employee, you want to do interesting work and be fairly compensated for your efforts, and as an employer you want to make the business as successful as you can. Growth is hard, but necessary: stagnation kills companies.

I’m happy to say that since making these adjustments, a lot has changed for the better. My engineering team grew from three engineers at its smallest to about twenty. We’ve significantly lowered our attrition rate, and engineers seem to be much happier and more fulfilled—I know I am. We’ve also been named one of Outside Magazine’s “Best Places to Work” for the last several years in a row, which really underscores the success we’ve had scaling our culture.

So, while there are no more Mario Kart tournaments at the office (and I still can’t convince legal to let us have a keg), we were able to pinpoint the core tenets of our culture and expand them in a way that made sense for a growing business. Culture, at its core, is more about relationships and attitude than specific perks. Having a foosball table but a boss that screams at you is as much a terrible culture as having no perks at all but a friendly attitude is a great one.

The next time you’re lamenting your company’s lack of twice-weekly catered lunches, think about the culture, not the perks, that surrounds you. You might just find that you have it better than you think.