I first learned about the concept of a “tech startup” when I was in college about 10 years ago. My friends and I all joined a website called “thefacebook,” which allowed us to review pictures of guys we liked to be sure that they were actually as handsome as they appeared to be with our beer goggles on. Thefacebook was exclusive at the time (“good” universities only), and though buggy, the platform was sleek, intuitive and cool — especially compared to our usual go-tos, like MySpace and Webshots. But beyond the technology created and connections made, the biggest showstopper for us was that it was all started by a guy who was about our age.
Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t a traditional CEO with decades of experience, he wasn’t a “serial entrepreneur,” and he certainly wasn’t a billionaire at the time. He was building a company that did not have the antiquated culture of lock-step raises regardless of performance, promotions based on seniority rather than merit, and entry-level employees taking the brunt of the grunt work until they aged their way up the corporate ladder. Thefacebook’s business model was an antithesis of the traditional corporation that we were all mentally preparing to join after college.
For those of us about to enter the workforce, Facebook gave us hope that there might be companies out there where we would be truly valued; where our expensive college degrees would actually be put to use; where we would be given responsibilities far bigger and far sooner than at a traditional, bureaucratic company. And the hope was not unfounded. As Facebook grew into a global corporation, people saw the possibility of a new standard of corporate culture: one that was flexible, fostered community-building, and perhaps most importantly, one that allowed for growth and development without political red tape.
Over the next few years, not only did millennials like myself flock to work at companies like Facebook, Tumblr, Groupon and Google, but so did highly-experienced, post-graduate executives from all over the world. Meritocracy and flexibility, as it turned out, were attractive corporate standards to people of all ages and backgrounds.
While this new standard for culture was in some ways a revolution, it also came with tradeoffs. Seed funding suddenly went towards beer fridges, trampolines, and fancy office space, rather than longer-term assets and infrastructure, such as human resources or “people teams,” as some call them today. The sole focus was to come up with the best ideas and get them to market fast — not worrying about anything else. “Move fast and break things,” as Mark Zuckerberg said.
Over the years, things started to break. We saw companies like Tumblr, Fab.com, Groupon and many others reach their apex in the late aughts, only to plummet either from a disappointing acquisition or significant valuation downgrade. Some of these companies didn’t completely close down, but they became well-known for their inability to focus on their mission and their toxic culture. As a recruiter for startups, I had clients who couldn’t hire fast enough to combat the hemorrhaging. These were the clients whose leadership debacles were more famous than their products and offerings.
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When it became apparent that many startups were struggling to stay afloat, many people in the industry looked back at Facebook — the quintessential startup — and wondered why they weren’t in the same position. Was the product alone really just that good? Were they offering something unique to their employees? How were they able to succeed while so many others could barely stay above water?
What we missed was that at some point along the way, Facebook just grew up. It had role models — like Google, who had just hired Laszlo Bock and started its mission to redefine the gold standard for HR, calling it “People Operations.” Facebook wanted to attract the kind of talent that Google was hiring, and to keep that same talent for the long term. Facebook realized that it needed to invest in performance management programs, work-life balance initiatives, learning and development, fairness in compensation, parental leave policies, thoughtfulness about diversity, and overall employee engagement. It realized that it had to address areas such as “management debt” by hiring experienced executives that actually knew how to lead and run a business, like Sheryl Sandberg, to partner with the wiz kid who moved fast and broke things.
While we might idealize young founders, like Mark Zuckerberg, taking on the world, building “lean mean startup machines,” and working 100-hour weeks out of their garage, we must acknowledge and learn from the entire Facebook story, including how as it grew larger, it ensured that it was not just breaking things, but also fixing them and building on them by investing in their people and people teams.
As a talent leader at a fast-growing startup, my advice to new founders is this: adding headcount and growing the business will not in itself make your company successful. Without investment in thoughtful, people-oriented growth, you will find that the early stage chaos you have been wading through will only amplify, and the longer you wait, the harder it is to undo. So instead of (or in addition to!) beer fridges and Pilates, invest in high-quality, robust, people teams to build the corporate armor to take you from a startup to a grownup. It might not match the romantic idea of a startup that we saw in years past, but startups that want to be successful, just like their 22-year-old founders and employees, must also, eventually, grow up.