Startup Work Environment?

At Hardin, we’re always looking to hire talented developers, both directly out of colleges like UW-Madison and developers with more industry experience. We’ve always prided ourselves in maintaining a fun work environment that encourages creativity, with flexible hours and plenty of pool and ping-pong tables, so long as people are productive. We’ve noticed and overall increase in productivity and dedication in response to this, and as CEO I’ve rarely felt the need to “crack the whip”, which is the classic concept of the startup work environment: few rules, dedicated employees, no cubicles, and no ties.

Groupon Offices

Groupon Offices

I’ve always assumed that most startups are like this, and certainly many are. Even when they grow rapidly, it always seemed that companies like Google were able to maintain a startup culture for a decent amount of time after they took off. With this in mind, it’s been disturbing to read about how it seems like the exact opposite is happening at some of today’s fastest growing startups, including Groupon and Zynga. Several weeks ago Gawker released a lengthy article on the growth of Groupon, including some interesting notes on the working environment in reference to the new management style implemented by a trio of brothers named Marc, Oliver and Alexander Samwer:

With some mixture of admiration, fear, and revulsion, their way is known amongst Groupon employees as “The German Way.” “They’re very shrewd, savvy, sharp elbowed guys,” says one source. “They are extreme capitalists,” says another. “For them there is no soft and fluffy side of the business. They’re revenue driven, not people driven. I think a lot of us who were enchanted by Andrew’s format of a combination of people and money and customer, were kind of turned off by The German Way. I think they really changed the internal happiness for the workplace.” For one thing, “The German Way” has meant the end of absurd pay days for entry level employees doing nine to five work. It’s also meant that Groupon’s office place has become a much more intense place to work for sales people. “It’s a total boiler room sales culture. And it’s really hardass. It’s pretty hardcore.” There are two views of this change. One is that it is ruining a once great place to work. One source who holds this view says that the Samwer’s proxy in the U.S., Chris Muhr, “is the kind of guy who will hold somebody up in a meeting, and say, ‘Bob, you made a really dumb decision. Bob, you’re a stupid asshole, sit down.’ Really hurtful, demeaning, bad shit.” The other view of the changes the Germans have brought to Groupon is—phew—it’s about time.

Zynga Offices

Zynga Offices

Recently, a post on Slashdot referencing several other articles had similar things to say about the work environment at Zynga:

If a recent internal survey and reviews left on are to be believed, working at social games company Zynga isn’t much fun. Zynga’s competitive, metrics-driven culture may be scaring away potential acquisitions and forcing out employees seeking better work-life balance and less stress.

According to the articles, the reputation of the corporate culture at Zynga is so bad that Rovio walked away from a $2.25 billion acquisition offer from Zynga in part because of it. Last month, in dozens of e-mails to a companywide list, frustrated workers complained about the long hours and stressful deadline periods. The quarterly staff survey solicited 1,600 responses, with plenty of criticism, including one person who said he planned to cash out and leave after the initial public offering. Quoting some posts from

You’ll work 8-18 hours per day 5-7 days per week. Company leaders demand creativity of employees after overworking them, and ignores most ideas that don’t follow the same technique/code base that most of their games currently use. Not much of a social life. Coworkers are grumpy because they’ve been overworked.

That working at a start-up can be difficult and require long hours is a given. That poor-performing employees are subject to dismissal is just how the world works. But it sounds like more than that is going on at Zynga and Groupon. I am firmly committed to maintaining an environment at my company that encourages employees to thrive and be creative, not one that grinds them down. I’d encourage fellow entrepreneurs to make it a goal to do so as well, since ultimately it creates better companies, and better employees.

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