Leaving Zombieland

Guide to a human-friendly start-up

In the last 4 years I worked in 3 different start-up companies. One I quit, got fired from another and mutually parted ways with the third.

What I learned is that the biggest advantage of a start-up is communication, and when a start-up catches the megalomania bug and starts to prepare itself to the kingdom come of the big game, it looses it’s most valuable asset — Lateral communication. In a big company, 80% of work communication that has actual influence, is one that coming from top to bottom. The rest is from the middle to the top and about 1% from the bottom and horizontally — between worker of the same level.

I love working with people. Not under people and not above them, I hate being bossed around as much as I hate to boss others around. The best ideas and breakthroughs I had, came from talking to a friend or a non-stressed coworker. And the worst working environments for me were in places where extensive communication with same-rank workers or with those above me, was frowned upon and considered “a waste of time”. Especially here in Israel where the army mentality seeps through to every aspect of our culture — being used to either give commands or follow them without much thought.

So there is a small list I made of things that can make such environment possible and things that are slippery slopes into corporatism. Use it if you want your company to be like this or if you are looking for the right company to work in.

  • Most important — find people who want to work this way! As it is said in the New Employee Handbook from Valve — hiring the right people is the pillar of such company. Many people openly or secretly want to either manage or be managed. See for yourself who are the people you might work with and ask them how do they envision their ideal work environment.
  • If a company is looking for an adviser that can help in a specific field for a limited amount of time, it is crucial that he will be a top notch expert. However, if a start-up company wants a full time employee to have a single narrow area of responsibility — run from it like from a forest fire! You might find yourself in a one room office with a boss and another employee, not allowed to make a single decision (true story).
    In general, I would avoid people who have a narrow field of interest, even if they are proficient in it.
  • When you want to discuss an issue with somebody and you get a reply in the spirit of “this is what has been decided already by someone so no need to waste time talking about it” — it is the main sign of a brain-dead company.
    There is a notion that talking too much will prevent work from being done. It is a lie. Finns have the best approach to problem solving — they talk. And what happens when they don’t come up with a solution? They go to the sauna and talk some more. They have no notion of someone “cutting the bullshit” and forcing a decision like most managers do.
    If we combine the two previous paragraphs — employees who are willing to communicate and make meaningful decisions — we have the ideal setting to come with solutions to the most complex of problems by talking, brainstorming and bringing ideas from fields that have nothing to do with their job description. Preventing that in a small start-up is lobotomizing it.
  • In his famous sci-fi book — Starship Troopers — Robert A. Heinlein lays out a philosophy of how an army should work. One of its’ main points is “everyone fights”. The cook, the medic and the high ranking general — all pick up arms and go into combat when needed. No one enjoys the perks of a safe office, while others risking their lives in combat.
    Same should go for start-ups — In a small start-up there is no place for managers who presume their soul task is to make others more efficient. If you have a fancy management degree, go work in some big ass corporation. When responsible for organizing a project, one should be able to jump into the thick of things, understanding enough of the code and design to help overcome challenges and if things are not going well, or there is simply nothing to manage, open up the code editor and work with everybody else.
    If you are in a place where you think your coworkers are not doing their best unless pressured and manipulated by cheap management tricks, something is very wrong.

As Valve proves by having 300 employees—it is possible even for a big company to be flat, thus allowing free flow of communication and flow of ideas. But when it comes to a small company — it is vital as air to breath. People should feel free to talk, ask, question, walk around and poke their nose into the work of others. Ideas that come from environment like that can change the world.

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