In 1998, I took a position with a budding start-up named JuniorNet. It was the height of the dotcom boom and a new generation of entrepreneurs were attempting to change the business landscape forever. While at JuniorNet, we raised — and subsequently blew — more than $80 million. It was the quintessential dotcom story, which came to an abrupt end as the bubble burst. And yet, no matter how ridiculous those times were, they yielded some valuable lessons for today’s entrepreneurs.
Like many start-ups during those days, JuniorNet put a ton of effort into making the office fun. Plus, it was an online service for children, so all of the decor was meant to bring out the child in everyone. There were Nerf guns, medicine balls, slinkys, action figures, RC cars, and play sets in every room. The walls were brightly painted and the desks had fun little designs on them. There were video game consoles, projection screens, comfortable couches, fully stocked Coke and Snapple vending machines (free, of course), and enough bagels to feed an army.
And, for when we wanted to act like adults, there was a fully stocked bar, appropriately called the “nav bar.” We had everything — and did everything –that would make old-timers in large, traditional corporations roll their eyes.
The result of pepping up the office, and focusing so heavily on the culture and morale of the company was that people showed up to work happy every day. We worked late into the night (often sleeping in the office), showed up on weekends, and rarely used our allotted vacation time. Whatever time was “wasted” playing video games or goofing off paled in comparison to the extra hours the company got from its employees.
Was it excessive? Yes, of course. But that wasn’t why the company failed. We didn’t blow $80 million on making the office fun; we blew it on a terrible marketing plan, a worthless acquisition, an insane amount of legal costs, and the same idiotic things that other dotcoms were doing back then. We paid LaVar Burton a ton of money to be our spokesperson. Yes, the guy from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Reading Rainbow. In addition to the spokesperson salary, we paid for him and his family to fly first class to various events, yet I think he said a total of three sentences about the company at said events.
If only we had thought to get William Shatner instead.
In the years since JuniorNet went under, I’ve had the good fortune to work for a handful of start-ups; some successful, some not. I’ve worked with some brilliant people on causes that I believed in, but I’ve never been a part of the same culture that JuniorNet had. Unsurprisingly, I’ve never seen the same work ethic and camaraderie either. One start-up in particular took the exact opposite approach of JuniorNet. The office was cold and industrial-feeling. Consuming alcohol was forbidden. Kibitzing with a co-worker about non-work-related topics was frowned upon. There were virtually no company outings, except for a few times when we left the office only to talk about work the entire time we were out. Company parties were as fun as funerals.
As a result of this culture, there was constant bickering between employees, everyone was starved for vacation time, and the entire place would empty out at 5PM on the dot.
The lesson here is simple: By their very nature, startups are a grind. There’s a lot of work, and too few people to do it. You’re likely to suffer a lot of failure before finding the right path. Those failures eat away at morale and confidence, which, if not treated, can lead to the team imploding. Frowning upon your staff for blowing off steam between 9-5 not only tells them that work shouldn’t be fun, but it also insinuates that work should only happen between 9-5. Start-ups need to blur those lines. Instead of guilting people into working long hours, make them jealous for missing out on all of the fun.
Buy a ping-pong table, or invent a silly game. Ask someone to bring in an old video game console, or buy one for cheap on eBay. On Mondays, make the rounds and talk to everyone about their weekend. Hire a masseuse, manicurist, florist, yoga instructor, clown, etc. to come by the office for an afternoon. Give the company a surprise three-day weekend. Encourage the men to grow moustaches. Organize a potluck for Talk Like A Pirate Day. Bring donuts in on a random morning. Give $10 giftcards to iTunes at random times. Have a movie night in the office.
The dotcom infancy may be over, but the change in business culture it brought is here to stay. Embrace it and you’ll have a team that will counter any bump in the road with the humility, energy, and passion needed to make your startup a success.