It’s common to see some new tech startup featured in the news for their quirky office space. Startup spaces are rife with exposed brick, rickety tables, wires taped to walls, and more inflatable ten-foot tall dinosaurs than you ever thought existed. We see these stories and think about how cool that startup must be or how fun it is to work somewhere with concrete floors so you can skateboard to your next meeting. And yes, while at LivingSocial I was guilty of having conference rooms turned into ball pits or stairways that led to nowhere. But in all fairness, while things can be fun, that isn’t the end goal. The real goal is a work culture that prides itself on productivity.
Let’s not mince words — startups are hard. They are wonderful, but also very hard. As such there are two challenges that any new company has as it relates to people. Attracting the best and keeping the best. Much of this is solved through a combination of career opportunity, pay, and benefits. The rest is less tangible — enjoyment, team cohesiveness, community. And because people in startups often spend so much of their time working these intangibles become even more important as they become replacements for the movies you never saw or the camping trip you never took.
So, how do you engage a generally younger, highly career mobile, time dedicated colleague? Give them a space that doesn’t feel like work. That means cubicles are out. No Steelcase desks. And my favorite from Fortune 500, only allowing employees of a certain tenure to have a plant in their office. In startups your desk chair can be a lazy-boy couch or you may opt for no desk at all. The key is the flexibility to make your work environment as comfortable as possible and this aligns much more strongly with beanbags and fake palm trees than it does with separated break rooms and company logo-adorned mouse pads.
Flying around the world in first class is great and not one of us would turn our noses up to a fun company car. Very large, well established companies have these trappings for good reason—they make a great deal of money by serving extremely large customer bases. However, it’s really uncommon for startups to either be making huge piles of net revenue or find themselves awash in customers (at least not at first). Generally startups live on someone else’s money like that of investors. Having had the privilege of working with many small and large investors over the years I can assure you they are wonderful, supportive, creative people that you are ecstatic to have working with you. This is true with one specific exception—wasting money.
Using investor money on anything that does not have a clear path to revenue generation is sure to make your next board meeting uncomfortable. So, while I appreciate and extole the virtues of fun workspaces - we don’t buy company cars or fly in corporate jets. My office is decked out with plywood, the lowest cost whiteboards we could find, and some comfy secondhand furniture. That said, our office is super awesome. Low overhead and the lack of a ball pit means we can buy everyone a Nerf gun, nice company t-shirts, and we get take more meetings at the brew pub. We relish in going to industry conferences rather than lament the middle seat in coach that got us there. And these things seem to keep our a group together in a more impactful way than providing a company car that only serves to get you to and from your cubicle next to the elevator.
Focus (or rather resistance to distraction)
Startups move fast. They make a ton of noise. And, they work to pull you in many different directions. Don’t get me wrong, these are great things but the ability to avoid distraction in a chaotic environment is a great skill. It can be a challenge as you try to talk to a customer on the phone while a Nerf gun war rages or try to model out a new market strategy while a group races desk chairs down the hallway. These are all great ways in moderation to blow off steam but are distracting nonetheless. If you structure your environment properly, something magical happens over time. The noise disappears. Focus on the task at hand becomes easy. The appearance of chaos fades and you can see the space for what it is: a finely tuned engine. Fun and focus have created a balance that produces abnormally productive team members. Fast forward in the life of company; you now have a dedicated team that can deliver results under great deals of stress and distraction. In short, superheroes.
So yes, we have our Nerf guns, silly pictures on the walls, we break most afternoons for ridiculous exercise – our office is pretty fun. But, at this stage of the game we’re keeping is scrappy and optimizing for focus. Which is why if you ask around, you’ll find a highly engaged, happy, group of colleagues AND investors, who all know how to walk through fire with noticing it to solve a problem.