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Ping-pong, Snacks, and Segways: On Startup Culture

Posted in Knerds on October 31, 2012 by

Knewton CEO Jose and COO David square off.

I have to admit, I’ve always been a little skeptical of the idea of the “fun-loving tech startup” — companies full of geeks lounging on bean bag chairs and playing ping-pong. The idea that a pampering environment could stimulate creativity and lead to wild success in the great internet frontier always seemed a bit trite. Weren’t these really just a bunch of geeks who got lucky, now attributing their success to some nebulous inspiration found between the primary-colored walls of their offices?

While there is certainly a component of geeky-fashionable extravagance to this trend (do Google employees really need to ride around on segways?), since interning at Knewton, I’ve come to appreciate the value of a business making its employees as comfortable as possible at work. While I didn’t always go for the bean-bag chairs, I can say for sure that my creativity and problem-solving abilities benefited from the fact that I was free to grab a snack and relax on the deck any time I needed to clear my head.

Of course it wasn’t just the availability of snacks that made a difference for me.  It was the company culture — I knew that it was perfectly acceptable for me to take a break at any time and do whatever would make me most comfortable and productive, even if that meant taking an afternoon off.  It made me feel like I was there on my own terms.

I think that this — the feeling of being there on your own terms — is an essential part of the term “startup” as it’s currently used, and also what is best about these companies. The beauty of this business model is that it recognizes that a company is ultimately a collection of people, and that its success should be measured by the value it brings to the people who compose it and the people it serves. While compensation is obviously important, truly successful companies bring other forms of value as well — personal well-being, creative freedom, and personal investment in a worthy cause to name a few.

And if for the people who work at Google that means segways, more power to them.