‘We Don’t Work 24/7 or Subsist on Ramen’: Building a Startup for Grown-Ups
Let’s play a game of word association. What comes to your mind when I say “startup”?
If you’re anything like me, you’re probably picturing some fresh-faced grads in hoodies lounging on beanbag chairs or coding late into the night. Maybe they’re sipping some craft beer from the on-premises tap. Maybe they’re taking a quick break for a round of Mario Kart.
This may be the general cultural consensus around what startups look like, but it’s not an accurate portrayal of life at Highfive, a three-year-old Silicon Valley company that sells a hardware/software combination system designed to make flexible work and remote conferencing easier.
“We don’t do keg stands,” says Shan Sinha, cofounder and CEO. “We don’t have all-night ragers or 24/7 expectations.”
Instead, Sinha says, what Highfive has is a “startup culture for grown-ups.”
Not that Sinha looks down on your typical startup or the young people who tend to staff them. In fact, Highfive’s 70-person staff includes many 20-somethings who fit the stereotypical demographic profile of a startup employee. The ages of Highfive’s staff members range from early 20s to 40s and 50s.
Rather, Sinha simply finds “a startup for grownups” a good handle for his company’s more laid-back and family-friendly culture – something that arose out of necessity.
Startups Are for Everyone
“We created Highfive in Silicon Valley, where there’s a lot of noise about and attention on the typical startup company – kids out of college starting something new and building the next social media app, for example,” Sinha says. “When we started Highfive, we realized there were a bunch of things about it that didn’t really line up with that narrative for us.”
For starters, Sinha and his cofounder Jeremy Roy knew they wanted to focus on B2B technology – “Not necessarily the sexiest thing,” Sinha says with a laugh.
Furthermore, Sinha and Roy had already been around the startup block a couple of times, having founded two prior companies that were both acquired – one of which by Google. They were at later stages in their careers and lives than your archetypal startup founder.
“We knew what it meant to build something from scratch and run a startup,” Sinha says. “And on a personal level, unlike the situation I was in with my last company, with Highfive, I had gotten married. I had one kid, and my wife was pregnant with our second. My cofounder and I … had families. We weren’t going to be working around the clock or subsisting on ramen noodles.”
It was these two factors – both the product they wanted to make and the personal circumstances of their lives – that made Sinha and Roy realize that they needed to stray from “the ideal recruiting narrative you tend to hear about for startup companies.”
“We knew we were going to end up recruiting a different type of person,” Sinha says. “We knew we were building hardware and software, so we needed to attract people who had done it before. This technology is not for the faint of heart. It’s not just another application. So we needed to recruit a lot of people who were further along in their careers – people who also had families and responsibilities and obligations [outside of work].”
Sinha and Roy decided that the logical step was to build a startup for grown-ups – the kind of place that would attract the right talent by making sure their needs were met.
“We wanted to attract the best people in the world, and the best people in the world are at all different points in their careers,” Sinha says. “They have all different sorts of backgrounds and experiences.”
Rather than go the well-trod and ultrahip route of many other Silicon Valley tech companies, Sinha and Roy wanted to create an environment that supported people regardless of where they were in their lives or careers.
“And, at the end of the day, it is a social thing, too,” Sinha adds. “You want to create an environment that people are going to want to come to. You have to be authentic to who you are and to the kind of people who will be necessary to bring along.”
What Does a Startup for Grown-Ups Look Like?
Sinha explains the process of building a startup for grown-ups as an act of “weaving together lots of little things” – as is the case with most company cultures.
For example, while Highfive may not throw all-night ragers, that doesn’t mean the company doesn’t conduct social activities. It just conducts activities that people of a variety of ages can enjoy together.
“We have our share of bar visits, but at the same time we also do trivia nights, game nights, and scavenger hunts — things that you wouldn’t necessarily do if you’re in that earlier phase of your life,” Sinha says. “Every time we have a new perk that we might want to introduce, we think about it from that perspective: What does this mean for someone who has a family? What does it mean for someone who is single? You think of all the different types of people you have and how the perk might work for them.”
The most important of all those little things may just be the company’s commitment to flexibility. After all: Sinha knows his employees have obligations outside of work. If he wants to keep them happy, he has to help them tend to those obligations.
“Anybody who is trying to create an environment for grown-ups has to embrace flexibility,” Sinha says. “I would absolutely say it is critical to invest in great communications technology, too – a great video-conferencing tool. Whatever you choose, it has to be something that gives your people the ability to communicate and engage with each other at a very human level [even when they aren't in the same room].”
For this reason, Highfive offers flexible scheduling and initiatives like “No-Meeting Wednesdays,” which ensures that every employee has at least one day a week they are guaranteed the ability to work remotely.
As a result of carefully cultivating a grown-up-friendly culture, Sinha and Roy have ended up with the kind of company where it’s not only common for an employee to show up to a video conference with their new baby in their lap – it’s something that people actually enjoy about the company.
“We had someone out on paternity leave, and he still to take a few occasional meetings, but he did those meetings with his baby on his lap,” Sinha recalls fondly. “We actually got used to his baby being a regular attendee of our meetings.”
Finally, Sinha notes that no matter what your organization’s culture, it’s up to the founders to set the tone. If they don’t walk the walk, then no one will.
“Me and my founder are pretty explicit about setting the pace and tone for our company,” Sinha says. “I make it a point to be out of the office by 7 or 7:30. It’s still later, but I’m the founder, so you’d expect me to be working the longest hours. I make it a point to drop my kids at school, too.”
By doing these things, Sinha signals to his employees that it really is okay for them make time for their own lives outside of work.
“You have to lean into what makes you who you are, what makes you authentic,” Sinha says. “You’ll find people like you. Ultimately, that’s going to lead to the best kind of culture that is well-suited for your company.”