What Happened to Changing the World?
“Change the world” used to be the three most-repeated words in Silicon Valley.
People flocked to the Bay Area to build the next earth-shattering innovation and to “move fast and break things.” That ethos and the ecosystem it spawned is what compelled me to move my company from Wisconsin to San Francisco.
A year, a few $10 billion valuations, and one $19 billion acquisition later, “change the world” has become, “What, no in-house barista?” Or as one recent hire from Yahoo asked us, “Where are the snacks?” We have a $50-per-week snack budget for our entire company. Our competitors offer paleo-diet meals three times a day, ten different kinds of “artisanal” kombucha, and free vending machines dispensing anything from heat-up sliders to Apple accessories. In this upside-down world, we’re the crazy ones.
Beyond the perks, many people now have outsized compensation expectations. This is a natural consequence of a culture distorted by monster signing bonuses, six-figure salaries for entry-level engineers, and the automatic counter-offers dueling tech firms lob at desirable candidates.
It’s not that excess isn’t the “Midwestern way.” (We can get a little crazy. We really can. I swear.) I’m not oblivious to how the world works. There are things you need to do to compete for talent. But the real danger in building an overindulgent culture is that it affects the companies we’re building and the problems we strive to solve.
The more we prioritize scotch, yoga classes, and lots of cash, the easier it is to forget that we came here to make a difference in the world. If you’re 22 and everything’s handed to you on a platter, are you really motivated to remedy the ills of the average American in “flyover” country? Would you really commit to working on a tough societal problem when you could build a disappearing-selfie app in 48 hours and sell it for a few million?
Entrepreneurship shouldn’t be a get-rich-quick scheme. We should apply ourselves to things that are uplifting — education, healthcare, whatever enables us to be our better selves — rather than to things that just entertain us or make life moderately less uncomfortable. That means peering outside our privileged bubble and thinking longer-term than our current culture of quick gratification has conditioned us to. Rather than engaging in the compensation arms race, let’s refocus on what really matters:
When the chairman of our board talks about the impact we have on kids trying to learn, he tears up. He sincerely cares that much.
That’s the level of passion and purpose you want every person at your company to feel. You want people to work for you because they believe in the mission, not because they get single-origin coffee on the morning shuttle. Loyalty runs thin in the Valley, and I think meaningful work always trumps a few extra perks.
Every engineer wants to have a sense of ownership in the product. You want to know that the code you write is what millions of people use. If you’re a designer, you want to do more than work on a button or fiddle with forty shades of blue. You want to be in charge of the entire workflow and create the complete experience.
That’s harder to do as your company grows, but it’s definitely possible if you prioritize collaboration over hierarchy and job titles.
You can’t expect your employees to see your company as their everything — their social life, their mom, their caretaker. If you don’t have a volleyball game to go to, a family to tend to, or some kind of outside interest, your job becomes an all-encompassing, exhausting treadmill.
It’s important to give your employees space to be balanced rather than ride them to squeeze a few more pennies out of each in-app purchase and give them free massages to compensate for their troubles.
Ultimately, we’re not all here just to chase a quick exit. We’re here to build successful businesses that create real value beyond the dollar amount in the Techmeme headline. To do that, you need to compete for talent and for some, an in-house barista is the price of entry.
But are we creating a generation of people who are more Wolf of Wall Street than Hackers? I hope not. All the same, we’re sticking to our $50-per-week snack budget.