The Case Against Startup Culture

Startup culture isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, writes Managing Editor Frank Kalman.
startup culture

This phrase perfectly encapsulates startup culture: “We work hard, but we play hard too.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard those words to describe the culture of a startup. On a few occasions, in a life before my days as an editor, those words were even said to me as I interviewed for a job. Somehow the person saying them to me seemed confident that the phrase would totally wow me into making me want to work for their company.

But, in reality, the work hard, play hard line fell totally flat for me, and I think it perfectly summarizes a major problem corporate America faces these days when it comes to their talent attraction strategies and the allure of being more like a “startup.”

Startup Culture Has Become Too Buzzy

Startup culture has become really cool. Too cool, I’d argue. Somehow, in the past decade or so, we’ve come to associate startup culture as the answer to modern productivity, performance and success, to the point where every company — startup or otherwise — envies the idea of transforming its culture to be more like a startup.

While I think there are legitimate reasons for companies to want to do this, I also think there is a risk in assuming everything that happens in startup-land is enviable.

Some Startups Have Ugly Subcultures

Firstly, the image that most people see when they think startup culture probably isn’t entirely accurate. Yes, many startups have flexible work environments, where employees are able to maintain loose in-office hours so long as they meet their performance goals and objectives. And, yes, many offer lavish and untraditional employee perks, like free food, beer on tap, nap rooms, social events and casual dress codes. Other attractive elements abound.

But, in many startups lies a subculture that isn’t quite as attractive. Take the work hard, play hard line. When I heard this line offered to me in interviews, my first thought wasn’t, “Great — I’ll be working every night until 1 a.m., but it will be fun because my co-workers and I will also go out and party hard after.” What I heard was, “There is an expectation that your work and social life bleed into one another, and there will be certain political consequences if you decide to have a life outside of work.”

The same thing goes for now-trendy unlimited vacation day policies. While I personally think such a policy is a great idea, too often I hear stories from friends who work in these environments of the pressure they face to not take time off. The culture says you have total flexibility with your time; the subculture says be careful how much you use.

Startup Culture Isn’t For Everyone

Oftentimes, I think the startup culture we talk about has nothing to do with the actual startup culture that startups experience. It has more to do with the idealistic vision we’ve painted of startup cultures and the way in which the media and these companies present themselves to the public. Make no mistake, some startups that offer, say, unlimited vacation do it right, but that doesn’t mean it works everywhere.

Yes, companies with long histories should learn to evolve on things like stack ranking, a lean operating model and flexible office environments. But when evaluating ways to modernize a firm’s work environment to bolster the satisfaction and productivity of talent, business executives should be careful not to get too distracted by the over-idealistic promises of becoming more startup-like. Not all talent is attracted to the idea of working in a startup environment (I’m a living, breathing example).

There are other ways to get the benefits of thinking and acting like an enthusiastic young startup that don’t involve the typical window dressing we see out of Silicon Valley and elsewhere. For instance, companies can create a transparent, collaborative physical office environment but still maintain a certain expectation when it comes to dress and conduct. Moreover, companies can implement leaner operating structures within their teams, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t a formal reporting hierarchy. A company can have plenty of social events and parties to celebrate its successes, but it doesn’t mean the office doubles as a fraternity house once 5 p.m. rolls around.

So executives and business leaders: Stop obsessing over how to make your company appear more like a startup based on your external observations. Start focusing on the things your employees want out of their workplace — because, more often than not, they’re not the same.

Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s Managing Editor.