The Startup Ping Pong Paradox
What to do if your developers play ping pong at the office instead of writing code.
Several years ago I got the following question on Quora, “I’m a 21-year-old CEO of a startup with eight guys. My developers sometimes spend all day at the ping pong table. How do I handle this?”
Here was my response:
My advice? Buy the very best ping pong paddle and start playing with them. You might want to get a few more ping pong balls too. The ping pong table is not your problem.
I’ve been a 20-something CEO, a 30-something CEO and most recently a 40-something CEO. I feel your pain. I’ve tried running startups with a ping pong table, without a ping pong table, with an xbox, without an xbox, with a foosball table, without a foosball table, with a bar/kegerator, without a bar/kegerator — you get the idea. My advice is to stop worrying about the ping pong table. Let it go.
You suggest that your team is actually executing fairly well — achieving breakeven next month. Congratulations. The real question you should be struggling with is whether or not your team is actually executing in the top 10% of startups. Conventional wisdom suggests that 90% of startups fail so you better make sure yours is in the top 10%. If your team is executing, keep doing whatever you’re doing — let them play ping pong whenever they want. If they aren’t executing I can guarantee that the ping pong table isn’t the real issue. The real issue is likely far more complicated and harder to fix. Most developers who choose to work for startups (as opposed to established companies like Google or Facebook) are there to build something great. They’ve bought into the ‘make a dent in the universe’ thinking made so famous by Steve Jobs. If your team is failing to execute, deciding instead to play ping pong all day I bet they don’t feel like they are making a dent.
Your job as CEO is to inspire your team, to motivate them, to convince them that what they are doing is important. Telling them to stop playing ping pong will likely just piss them off and make it more difficult for you to lead them.
I’ve had some developers who screwed around everyday at the office, but managed to meet their deadlines and obligations. I guess they liked to code in the darkness of their apartment at night. It bugged the crap out of me, but eventually I realized that if someone is executing, I really needed to chill out and buy more ping pong balls. You’re not running a factory. You’re dealing with highly intelligent information workers that have unlimited options for employment. Accept that fact and be the best possible leader you can be.
I recently got a note from the founder thanking me for the advice. He said he wasn’t really happy with it when I delivered it almost five years earlier, but he explained that he does now. Not sure what happened, but thought it was worth reposting again here on Medium.