I was walking in downtown Palo Alto when a bathtub bubbling over with bright plastic balls caught my eye (think way back to your Chuck E. Cheese ball-pit days). As I looked further into the space I saw it was filled with indefinable furniture, arranged in multi colored configurations - quintessential signals of a “hot and hip” startup culture. Sitting at a 30 foot conference table was the only lonely person in the space working on a laptop. Interest brought me back to the sidewalk by the window again and again, and in the three months I passed by, I never did see anyone in the space ever again.
In the fight to attain, and retain top talent, Silicon Valley companies will do just about anything. Having an attractive culture is right up there at the top, and can even beat out salary and location.
But what does it mean? It’s important to determine, because when you’re about to pull your hair out because no one will iterate on broken procedures or ludicrous decisions, the only thing that ping pong table will be good for is hitting out your frustration. How do you determine the substance from the ball pits?
Here are some good questions to dig deeper if you’re considering joining a startup:
Who Joins the Team?
Is the recruiting process driven by an external recruiter? Who has a say as to who joins the team? Our recruiting process is all about everyone being involved. The candidate will meet everyone in the company at least once, and will participate in a four step interview process, all driven by the team. When deciding whether someone should be extended an offer, company consensus is mandatory. We take to heart maintaining a balance of people who not only like each other, but can work with each other. I heard an analogy once, and it really pertains to our company; a startup is like a marriage, you’re going to spend 12 hours a day with these people, in small quarters, and it’s inevitable you’re going to fight. You have to be able to talk it out and move on. There’s not room for egomaniacs. Find out how they source candidates and how they decide who gets an offer.
Leadership - What is it like to work for these people?
What are the founders like? Words like “innovative” and “entrepreneurial” are great, but what is it like to work for these people? I don’t know about you, but working for a mini Mussolini doesn’t sound inviting, no matter how talented they are. One of the things that struck me when I joined the company is that our founding team made a point of going on a 30 min walk with me every week. This time was not spent on discussing my performance (that was a daily check in), but rather asking for my feedback and talking about where my growth opportunities were within the company. I was always surprised by how attuned they were to what was going on with everyone, while still running a business. For them the health of moral, and the ability to foster a culture where people felt comfortable voicing praise and critique alike was important. Here it’s all about approachability and a team-centric attitude, characteristics that set the tone for everyone in the office. If it isn’t displayed at the top, imagine how working with everyone else will be.
What happens when people disagree?
This one is key, I can’t reiterate that enough. During the interview stages there is endless talk about work ethic and skills. But it’s important to find out what happens when people in the company disagree, how do they solve the conflict? Does the person with the highest rank win, how about the strongest personality, is there someone that gets their way by intimidating other people? Listen for what they tell you, while they may not disclose uncomfortable situations, their answer will give away if they have a process in place that they believe in and adhere to. For us it’s about talking everything out. This may sounds like a corny Oprah episode, but it’s a hard thing to do when you’re boiling mad or frustrated. We’re really big on taking each other aside, and voicing why we want to pull the other person's hair out. This has established a great rapport between all of us and fosters open and honest communication. This is our resolution style, and you should make darn sure that the way your future company handles conflict resolution works for you.
Deconstructing the culture of your future dream company can prove to be the last integral piece to finding the space that allows you to flourish. Ask the tough questions in the beginning, and that ping-pong table might just prove to be some fun :)