Culture is the opium of the masses for high tech, B2B companies.
The more a CEO and VP of People and Culture use that empty word “culture” the more insipid, rotten their company is likely to be.
Culture is the perfect drug for young, inexperienced startup hires because it is a word defined by what one wants it to mean. Culture is that thing you think makes you something you most crave, being somebody – not being just a worker bee in a mindless exercise of VC powered work product.
To the young person joining a VC funded startup, culture has manifestations, since it cannot be put into words. Little furry, schnoodle (part schnauzer, part poodle) dogs running around the warehouse or fake warehouse office is a key.
Lots of logo-wear, like hoodies, pens, stickers of course, and hats are everywhere.
Mindless HR types with balloons pop up mid-day office parties to celebrate entirely empty events like “…one of the fastest growing companies north of 121, east side, in Plano” award.
There is the benefits package – that list of services translating corporate love into real stuff – free catered lunch from a cool restaurant several days a week. There is the “unlimited vacation” nobody has ever dared take for more than 10 days a year. There is the theater of corporate openness, with the VP of People and Culture and the CEO reviewing the company strategy and deals every few weeks.
There are the stock options, because this culture-driven company wants an “ownership mentality” so everyone gets to own part of the company, via an option package.
Of course the options vest over 4 years when the average employee longevity is 18-23 months. Then there is the E, F, G financing round which reduces the value of the options 30% – 50% each round. There is the all important “fully diluted option value” – a number that in the history of American startups may have never once been uttered.
All of this is the theater of “culture” a fraud that keeps on giving, particularly to those who want to consume it to fulfill other needs, like feeling valued while being exploited.
The day comes when all the culture stuff comes due. That day is the last day our valued employee is working at our little B2B tech startup.
Rather than speculate, let’s take a real example, a company where there is actually a VP of People and Culture, there are the little dogs running around the warehouse-like floor, logo wear grows on trees and they are on their G or H financing round.
They are in the DevOps space, actually a subset in the B2B space where they do code testing and other arcane DevOps stuff. This is ground zero for company culture and its cancerous effects seen only when one looks over one’s shoulder, afterward. These are true examples from several such firms.
Alex is a 38 year old former customer, hired as a top Sales Engineer by our friends at Testing.Inc here. He was the go-to-guy when there was a serious customer tech problem. He often flew in on a Monday morning, left the following Friday, living in a cheap hotel and making his product work at the customer site.
Alex was so highly regarded, he spoke at the annual user group meeting. Having a tremendous, quirky personality, he lit up the room and customers and other employees loved him. Alex often volunteered to deliver high value customer desired documents on how to best perform complex testing tasks.
Alex, unfortunately, was a math major in an earlier life.
He looked at his stock options, which were 30% of his 5 year employment income value, and determined they were worth not the $400,000 he expected, but more like $0 due to the multiple investment rounds.
Alex decided to leave and join a more promising endeavor. The new company is not a competitor. It was not in the same space as his testing company although it was somewhere where testing might be involved.
He, being a most honorable guy, told the VP of People and Culture he was departing, gave proper 2 weeks notice, volunteered to help out in any way he could in the intervening weeks.
Focus people, remember where we are right now. This is the “we are a great culture, we value you as humans” place right now and our boy, Alex just resigned.
Within 2 hours, the VP of Culture had the HR Manager go to Alex, tell him to collect his stuff, leave his PC, and she walked him out the door. She handed him a letter from the corporate attorney, a hack who couldn’t get a job at a real law firm, about never saying anything bad about the company.
Alex was not paid for the 2 weeks notice he gave; Alex was terminated on the spot and HR went through his expenses and deducted hundreds of dollars they said were “questionable.”
Alex, being a totally honest, top employee who served our Testing.Inc company well, was just stunned.
What did Alex do?
Alex told everyone about what happened. The first 30 people to call after he was frog marched out, were from the Austin, San Francisco, Dallas employee network. When they heard what happened, they too were stunned.
These employees knew our little testing company was struggling, but they had some hope in the culture. When they saw the company fire a great guy, who everyone liked, for being totally honest and saying he was resigning, and NOT going to a competitor – they saw the culture for what it was, bullshit.
The company is not unique.
There are a hundred stories like this every day in the B2B startup world. In most cases, there is an Alex. They leave for a better gig. The company, like a jilted lover goes nuts. Rather than wishing their Alex well, tossing a party, and having everyone think the culture crap really exists, the company fires Alex.
They screw him out of his expenses, just for spite. They send the lawyer letter from a hapless attorney making less than a starting sales engineer. They ignore that an Alex is gone as if he fell through a trap door and disappeared.
Alex’s name just disappears. Nobody knows he is gone – officially. Like in the old Soviet Union, Alex becomes a “non-person.” Alex? He never existed.
Every time this happens, the company rips off its mask and shows “we are a culture that values each human to their full potential” is just bullshit.
Then, scores of 20-something employees and their older compatriots know they are just working in a venture funded, work mill, screwed out of their stock options and they will be fired when they try to quit.
That, my friends, is the real culture. It is only seen on one’s last day.