Ghost in the machine: Dark secrets of lethal startup culture

kr428, Flickr

In 2008, my blog (a labor of love up to that point) was purchased by an Atlanta startup. It wasn’t “for sale” exactly, but I had the audience they wanted.

And they had a five-figure check with my name on it—along with a full-time gig waiting for me in Georgia.

It’s not an exaggeration to say my entire life changed after that.

I moved to the South (yes, really) and overnight I went from corporate lackey to integral cog in “the next Facebook” machine.

Okay, maybe that last part was wishful thinking.

The truth was, this startup—like oh-so-many—had the thin veneer of being something special, but beneath the surface, it was wholly, unabashedly ordinary. To be clear, I’m talking about the product and the company culture; both appeared promising at the outset but fell short upon deeper inspection.

Culture, in particular, is where many startups get it wrong. They tear a page from the Silicon Valley playbook, demanding long hours and plenty of personal sacrifice, all while promising a Google-like IPO.

Only, here’s the problem: Executing a truly remarkable startup culture isn’t simply about getting people to work more; it’s about getting them involved. It’s about encouraging innovation and freedom of thought—the fuel that drives a startup.

All too often, this part is ignored. Beneath the work, work, work startup façade, there’s nothing more than a typical corporate ogre. Employees don’t feel invested. They sacrifice their time with family, their sleep, even their health—and they’re still subjected to the corporate hierarchical bullshit that prevents their brilliant ideas from seeing the light of day.

So they get the short end of the stick from both sides.

I worked as Managing Editor for an online startup for three years. I can recall only a handful of days when I left the office before 7 p.m., each time flanked by jeers of, “What? You workin’ a half day?”

My coworkers routinely demonstrated their commitment by sending email at 3 o’clock in the morning, just to see who would respond. Occasionally, I’d wake up to a flurry of pointless electronic communication, the sole purpose of which was to distinguish who was working and who was sleeping.

The great payoff for this kind of torture should be a deeper involvement in the company. A louder voice. A stake that goes beyond stock options that may never come to fruition. But this is where leaders tend to drop the ball and fall into their old corporate ways.

Startups are, by their very nature, innovative. And yet, often the cultures that exist within them are tragically conventional. On the surface, they sing the typical startup tune, but inside, it’s AnyCorp, USA—hierarchy and bureaucracy abound. Creativity is stifled. Do your job, don’t complain, don’t disagree.

Startups have the opportunity to create exceptional cultures that reflect their own innovative core. They attract a talented, diverse workforce.

People choose to work for startups because they want to be a part of something different—because they themselves are inherently different. They’re risk takers, free thinkers. They want to be on the cutting edge. And this is what makes them so valuable. The corporate world is unable—or maybe unwilling—to give these people the wide-open spaces they require to identify new solutions to old challenges, and to forge new paths in uncharted territory. After all, that’s not the role of AnyCorp, USA.

But without this kind of freedom, the startup doesn’t get the true benefit of being a startup, and the employee doesn’t get the true benefit of working for one. Eventually, these rare birds realize they’re exactly where they were in the corporate world—faceless cogs in the machine.

Remarkable startup cultures give employees more than stock options and promises of big paydays. And that’s what makes them successful—not the 20-hour workdays.

The startup I was a part of is still puttering along, though it has seen 100 percent employee turnover at this point. I certainly don’t regret my time there or my decision to sell in the first place. The experience has shaped my view of work and what I, as one of those free thinking risk-takers I mentioned, need to feel satisfied. I now work for myself as a solo-entrepreneur and am considering building a team in the future. My hope is that, as I grow, I will embrace the true startup spirit that eludes so many.

Because, let’s face it, that’s what creates Google-like IPOs.