Why I spent my startup’s rent money on headphones

Photo: Shutterstock

Having a place where your employees can do great work and meet with each other a few times a week is important. You don’t need me to tell you that. But more and more, that place is no longer an office.

It’s Slack. Or Google Hangouts. It’s a team spread between different cities, different states or even different countries.

When I decided to launch my new company earlier this year, I had three main goals:

1. Hire the absolute best people, regardless of where they were

2. Build an amazing culture grounded in honesty, trust and openness

3. Question every assumption I had about building a company

It was the third point that I really spent a lot of time thinking about. I had a lot of assumptions about how to build a great, fast-growing company:

  • You need a great office
  • You need to all be physically in the same place
  • You all should meet face-to-face at least once a week
  • You should hire the best people you can find in your city
  • You can’t build an enduring culture without everything above

Turns out, that’s completely untrue. Did you know, for example, that Automattic (the company behind WordPress) has over 400 employees that work from wherever they happen to be?

How about Github, the $2B company helping SAP, Rackspace, PayPal and others build great products? They have over 300 employees that also work from wherever they happen to be.

As I started to write my first job ad to hire an engineer back in March, I considered doing what I was “supposed to do” — signing a lease on an office, posting the job ad and interviewing candidates in person. Either at our new office or at a local coffee shop.

But then I did the complete opposite.

I didn’t rent an office and I didn’t hire anyone that lives in my city. It turns out those were two of the best decisions I’ve made.

Fast forward 8 months and we are a completely distributed team that’s growing. We have no physical office and no in-person meetings. We work from wherever we want. We meet using Google Hangouts and talk to each other in Slack. We’re building an amazing culture based on openness, trust and transparency using the exact product we came together to build — PeopleSpark.

When we launched our product to the world last week, I bought everyone a pair of high end Bose headphones. Not because we’re audiophiles, but because we’re all flying to Sydney for a week in December for our team offsite.

We’re going to work from a house by the beach I’ve rented on Airbnb. We’re going to the zoo to see kangaroos and koalas. We’re going to drink beer, watch a football game and believe me, get a heap of work done in between.

But when the trip is over, we won’t see each other in person again for 6 months. And that’s exactly how we like it.

Having built 5 companies in the last 15 years — ranging from 5 people to 500 people and no revenue to tens of millions, I’ve come to learn that building a great culture is really about:

  • Hiring the best people in the world
  • Giving them an exciting, compelling vision
  • Giving them a way to talk to you openly, honestly and regularly
  • Leading by example

An office is not required. That’s why I spent my startup’s rent money on kangaroos and headphones.

Mitchell Harper is founder and CEO of PeopleSpark, the employee engagement software on a mission to make one million people quantifiably happier at work. He is also the co-founder of BigCommerce. Follow Mitchell Harper on Twitter.

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