Start With Grocery Shopping

What I learned about company culture lugging groceries across town

For years I worked on a corporate campus where an army of contract employees took care of my every need. They made me breakfast, lunch, and dinner, refilled nearby kitchens with snacks and coffee, and delivered equipment to my desk. I made requests with a few keystrokes. People appeared at my desk to assess its ergonomics and troubleshoot my cellular antennae — the process from request to fulfillment was an operations marvel. I could walk down the hall for a quick massage while my colleagues got pedicures, haircuts, and oil changes in the parking lot outside of our office. Busloads of my peers were shuttled from their homes to our offices everyday.

Similar benefits are the “norm” that startups aspire to. Aspirational founders set these standards for onsite amenities. The efficiency problem they were trying to solve is clear: to make their most highly paid employees more productive by outsourcing menial tasks that take them away from achieving explicit business goals. These practices were thought to benefit employees themselves as they removed friction from their daily lives. Employees could stay on campus and accomplish a myriad of routine errands so that their time at work and at home was maximized. The unfortunate side effect of these practices is a culture of entitlement within the trenches.

Since leaving the security of a big company, and becoming a startup founder, I’ve been trying to understand why these benefits didn’t equate to more fulfillment at work for me. Why did I feel more energized now that I was packing my lunch, taking the train to the city, and meeting new people at local coffee shops and co-working spaces? For months, I had no income and remained on a tight budget, so how could I explain my newfound satisfaction to my well-paid former colleagues who were still “optimized” to the hilt?

On her last day of summer before school started, my twelve-year old daughter asked if she could tag along with me for the day. I said yes despite the fact that I had a recruiting lunch with an engineer. I brought her to the co-working space where my co-founder and I had been working for months and introduced her to the proprietor, an entrepreneurial fashion designer who made time to demonstrate pattern-making to my daughter. My daughter read as my co-founder and I released a build to our beta users. At lunch, we parted ways. My co-founder took my daughter to a tiny French café while I tried to woo a talented senior engineer to come to our company. We reconvened for a tour of our new office space where we’d recently signed a short-term lease. Before heading back to the co-working space for the afternoon, I took my daughter to a local coffee shop where the proprietor dry roasts coffee beans that smell like blueberries. We often discussed books. Walking back, my daughter had a spring to her step. “Your new life is so much cooler now, Mommy,” she said as she flipped her hair. Despite the sacrifices our family was making, even she got it.

When I ordered equipment for our new engineers, and we set up our machines together, it hit me: satisfaction is derived from not taking the little things for granted. Our new engineers had joined the company to have true ownership, to help determine the fate of our product and company.

Throughout their first week in the office in the office, they were inquisitive about our budget and staying within it. My co-founder advocated for snacks and had everyone make modest requests on a shared document. She got up early and did the shopping for us. When she arrived with two bags of groceries, we all took a break to thank her and put the snacks away. She shared that she felt torn earlier while shopping: she was under pressure to investigate bugs and get a new release out, but there was significance in equipping the team with fuel for the week. “Next week, I’ll do the shopping,” one of our engineers volunteered.

When you want your kids to grow up to be responsible, participative adults, you share responsibilities to at home. The office is no different. Building technology that people want and need means that our employees must live in the world, not in a tech bubble of our own making. If we want them to take ownership and feel like what we’re building is their own, give them the power to build the business from the ground up, starting with small, symbolic things.