What we get wrong about #startup culture

I sat down yesterday to write job descriptions for a few positions we’re hiring for. Our job descriptions and application process is slightly different than most. We don’t collect resumes. We don’t put developers through a technical review. And we don’t describe ourselves by the perks we give to employees. While writing this up, It got me to thinking: what is culture in a startup anyways?

The boom in start-ups over the last 15 years has marked this new wave in how we portray our companies to prospective employees. Go find just about any startup that’s hiring and there’s likely a “culture” section on the job description that says something like: Free beer on Fridays (well, free beer everyday now)! Massages for everyone! Ping pong on the roof. FREE CHEF CRAFTED LUNCHES WHAAAAT?

Don’t get me wrong. I love a free beer while I’m getting a massage while eating a farm-to-table lunch before going back to work (ok that’s never happened to me but I’ve heard stories you guys). And I can whip some ass at ping pong. But this does not a make culture.

Culture, or the atmosphere you create at your company, is not something you can easily manufacture. There’s no guidebook that says “Chapter 3: How to make your startup cool as shit”. Great startup culture, in my opinion, is fostering an atmosphere of creativity and empowerment. It’s giving your team the ability to think outside of the box, to find creative solutions to problems, and communicating to your team and prospective team that they’re not just another employee or subordinate but rather an integral part of the bigger picture.

Tangibly, we create culture at our shop by encouraging the team to set aside time to work on whatever they want (borrowed from Google). In 2015, we’re setting aside budget to allow each member of the team to go out and buy whatever they want — whether it be a raspberry pi, arduino kits, books to learn new stuff, or in my case, I plan to build an Office DJ platform (my coworkers will love Radiohead all day everyday). We encourage the team to break things and then figure out how to put them back together. In short, we do our best to make the job fun AND competitive.

The takeaway from this is that I don’t think a list of perks make a culture. That the founders, their personalities, what’s important to them is what will ultimately shape the culture more than anything.

(p.s. We offer unlimited peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and we’re hiring)

Nov. 12 2014