Startup founders must set a new tone instead of burning through their employees.
How does the Slack message below make you feel? It’s from the CEO of Revolut, a fast-growing U.K. startup, about key performance indicators (KPIs), the team being behind on them, and the consequences of not reaching them. One line declares, “If your team does not hit KPIs, most likely, your bonus will be zero even if you are a great contributor.”
A number of aspects of this message make me feel uneasy:
- The threatening tone
- An expectation to work weekends
- The open, public declaration of there being a watch list and the open, public threat of being put on it
- A “simple rule,” which is that staff who do not hit their KPIs will get fired with no negotiations
- The Slack emoji reactions: “push,” “get (sh)it done,” a tank, the Mortal Kombat logo — it implies that this is a war and that winning the war must happen at all costs
Now, don’t get me wrong — I love startups, and I love an audacious belief in taking on the world and winning. However, something is going (or has gone) wrong with startup culture.
I don’t believe that we’ve ended up where we are through malicious intent. However, we are all influenced by the practices and celebrated successes of the famous companies we see publicized in our industry, and those celebrated successes are the “unicorns,” the 10x-growth rebels: hustling hard, being disruptive, vacuuming talent and competitors in a race to become the dominant force in the market.
We read books, we watch podcasts, we follow influential business people on Twitter, and slowly, with time, we move the norm toward an extreme because of the echo chamber that surrounds us. Building technology has been enabled by, but also heavily tainted by, growth-or-die culture.
Can there not be a middle ground?
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Growth at all costs
Software-as-a-service (SaaS) models are obsessed with growth. Company valuations are typically driven by their revenue and year-on year growth percentages. Venture capitalists push founders and their boards to deliver significant multiples of their initial investment.
Two times isn’t enough. Five times is middling to average. Ten times has become a cliché. You hear it all the time: “10x thinking,” “10x scaling,” and “10x engineers.” And sure, that’s all well and good — I’d love 10x growth as much as the next person — but relentless focus on growth alone begins to breed the wrong behavior.
Growth should not trump good business practices.
Growth should not come at the cost of employees.
Growth should not negatively impact society and the planet.
Only a small handful of VCs’ many portfolio companies need to exit well for them to successfully grow their investment fund. The rest can fail, and although it’s a shame, it isn’t the end of the world because their bankers can still balance the books.
It’s extremely helpful to have a challenging VC pushing a company to be better in the same way the coach of a sports team pushes players. The players should still aim to achieve within the rules of the game. When the VC’s view is just one of a diverse selection of stakeholders — VCs saying “grow 10x or lose,” chief technology officers saying “build incredible technology,” and CEOs saying “hire, grow, and support fantastic people” — the antagonistic tension of opposing viewpoints can create fantastic companies.
Yet, strangely, the banker’s worldview (“grow fast and big or die!”) is becoming the de facto startup culture — ahead of the passion to build amazing things the founders once dreamed about, to create jobs in local areas, or to support the lives of employees doing work they are passionate about.
Aggressive growth at all costs can cause poor behavior that, in turn, leads to poor culture. Caring about numbers can trump caring about people, causing people to choose dangerous short-term views and strategies over sensible long-term ones. It can make people cheat. Ethics are compromised.
Take a look at this leaked take-home task for Revolut:
In a high-stress, growth-driven environment, this take-home interview task could have been seen as a clever way of singling out motivated candidates and also contributing by crowdsourcing to challenging company KPIs. I doubt there was any explicit malice. However, this task is effectively asking people to work for free, which is illegal in some countries.
When high pressure becomes the norm among large groups of people, it can blinker good judgment. We see this through history, and we see it in companies that go horribly wrong.
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So who is to blame? I think all of us are.
Growth-or-die culture, hustle culture — whatever you wish to call it — is beginning to leak beyond the office and into the daily lives of a whole generation of workers. We are at the point now where many young founders have only been exposed to one way of doing business: grow at all costs until you exit or self-destruct. They can sometimes apply that same logic to their own lives.
An excellent article by Erin Griffith for the New York Times describes “performative workaholism” — how celebration of hustle lifestyle (read: toil glamour) is entering the mainstream as an aspiration and a badge of honor, as a grouping of like-minded individuals who have rebranded the rat race as their purpose. Within that article, we are treated to this tweet:
We can look at the picture of the carved watercooler cucumber and laugh at how silly it is. We can titter at the thought of Dunelm selling “Get Shit Done” embroidered cushions in place of “Live, Life, Love” ones for your sofa. Alternatively, we can consider how even co-working startups — which we don’t actually work for and, hence, shouldn’t determine our culture — are promoting burnout and workaholism to people who have not got the years of experience to realize it isn’t going to end well.
Another noteworthy article by Anne Helen Petersen for BuzzFeed Newsexplores how millennials who are working long hours, paying back large debts, and unable to save for their first homes are feeling the full force of burnout, to the point that running simple errands (“adulting”) can send them into spirals of overwhelmedness.
A more recent New York Times article highlights a related trend. Financially stable thirtysomethings — typically homeowners without significant debt living in expensive cities — tend to have the financial support of their baby boomer parents. This is true even if they have highly paid, upwardly mobile jobs.
Is it any wonder that fast-growing startups attract those most willing to hustle unsustainably? Is it a surprise that the rat race is so inevitable for younger generations, and that the only way to tolerate it is to celebrate it? Is it any wonder that those with a real opportunity to achieve financial escape velocity might begin to bend the rules to ensure it happens?
Revolut and places like it are not an anomaly.
It’s time to reframe success
I believe we need to rethink our definition of success. It is not healthy to continue building companies around a primary function of producing a hockey-stick growth. We need to stop filling columns with talk of unicorns and revenue multiples. Instead, let’s dedicate time and publicity to companies that are in it for the long term.
We need to focus on and celebrate different kinds of successful organizations:
- Those that create innovative technology that is meaningful for their users and the world
- Those that choose not to set up shop in major cities, turning instead to overlooked parts of our countries
- Those that allow remote and flexible work, enabling their employees to ride the waves of life without letting their mental or physical health suffer
- Those that give staff real opportunities to learn, grow, and stay for many years
- Those that do work that really tangibly impacts the community through charity and other means
With that in mind, technology companies have a lot to answer for. How many of us are certified B corporations? How many give meaningful amounts to charity? Are we really looking after our staff first, our users second, and our investors third — or have we got it the wrong way round?
Our industry generates billions of dollars in revenue. Are we using that money to sustain the health of our companies, our people, our society, and the planet? Do we think our companies will be around in 100 years? Are we making ethical choices about how we prioritize our work?
We all have a say in this matter. Leaders can set an example from the top. And if we don’t have the power to change the culture of our workplace, we can vote with our feet — even if it means being paid less.