When people can devise their own lifestyle, career, and mobility more than at any other time in history, it’s interesting to ask how a startup can support and encourage its employees beyond a paycheck.
When job-hopping is a badge of honour instead of a scar of disloyalty, it’s interesting to ask how a company can retain talent over significant stretches of time.
When “friend” means one of 852 on Facebook, it’s interesting to ask what a friend really is.
John Price (CEO Vast) mused on this last one: “A true friend is someone I can telephone at 2am, out of the blue, ask them to bring $20,000, no questions asked…. and they do.”
I vividly recall the moment when I connected on this level with Austin Gunter — our social media keymaster (are you the gatekeeper?), the most online-visible person at WP Engine. I was about to give a night-time talk about making websites fast at a local Austin PHP users group; did anyone at the office want to come? I’ll buy dinner after? Bueller?
They didn’t. But I looked at Austin, and he gave a smirk and nodded. “Yeah, I’m in. I’ll film it too.”
It was during “Final Four Week,” which I didn’t know because I don’t follow basketball. But Austin knew, and had plans to hit a sports bar with friends that evening. But he silently delayed that to see me wax on network latency and reading performance-analysis reports.
It was recorded too. (See it here if you’re into such things.) (Does anyone not hate what they look like / sound like on camera?)
To me, that is what a friend is. That’s my equivalent of the $20k at 2am. Supporting your peeps because you know it sucks to do stuff like that alone.
So when Austin said he wanted to move to San Francisco from eponymous Austin (Texas), supporting his move was a no-brainer.
But wait, doesn’t that mean a pay raise to cover cost-of-living? Yes. But wait, isn’t that an HR no-no? Who cares. But wait, what if Austin finds a hot new startup in San Francisco and bails on us?
Well, devotion works both ways.
We always talk about the benefits of startups in terms of “having no boss” and the thrills of the roller-coaster and failing fast and building something that never existed. Not to mention the potential to make more money than we could ever spend.
But that prose is aimed at the founders, not employee #8. That is what the company can do for itself and its founders, not what the company can do for its employees.
We dwell on how startups enable founders to quit their day job and master their own destiny. But what about everyone else? They quit their day jobs too, perhaps more secure, perhaps with better benefits, perhaps with more family time, perhaps with less stress, perhaps with fewer hours. And yes, employees are getting the checks instead of writing the checks, and that does make all the difference, but still. What about what they can control, how they want to grow and learn, how their personal goals might be fulfilled?
Step one is to create an environment where the culture and comfort and excitement is better than 99.9% of any other job. Good, but you’re not done.
A startup must be an enabler, otherwise you’re just building another big company, exactly like the one you as a founder refused to devote your life to. In 2013, in the tech world, with our opportunities and capabilities, we must do more than just build another big company.
I just got an email from our VP Marketing about an interesting conversation she had with Austin and, now that they’re both in San Francisco, that’s happening all the time. Austin was quick to point out the various benefits of our “social media and community guy” being in the bay area and in close proximity to several of our other team members not to mention the heart of WordPress and a nerve-centre of designers and marketing agencies.
I suppose I could “justify” the cost of living salary increase using these incidents as “business cases,” but why should I rationalize? Besides, as a founder I don’t have to justify anything to anyone, right? Isn’t that one of the joys of being a founder in the first place?
The truth is it really is a net positive for the business and for Austin both, because Austin is a critical part of our team, and if he’s happy, the benefits accrue to us as well. And if a startup can’t support that, what’s the point?
So welcome to San Francisco, Austin. We love you. Let’s do this.
Don’t be a stranger.
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