Why Startup Culture is Bad for Creative Firms

If you’re like the old me, Company A’s hip and exciting culture would win.  But after working in both types of environments, I’ve learned otherwise. These days, if I were to see a ping-pong table on a job interview, I would turn and run.

The hip culture of iconic tech startups trickled down to many industries, especially design and creative services. Startups use toys, events, and flexible policies to set a particular tone. Startup culture promises camaraderie and convenient amenities. But there’s often a dark side, and it entails losing all breaks and boundaries between work and life. This environment stifles creativity.

Whether you’re a business owner, freelancer, or employee, finding the right company culture is beyond important. Here is why startup culture is bad idea for creative firms.

The Office Becomes Life

Startups are known to invest a ton of resources making sure their employees never have to leave the office.  Are you hungry?  No need to step out for a sandwich because we have a gourmet chef!  Are you stressed or creatively blocked?  No need to take a personal day because you can spend an hour in our super-sleek gym! Worried about missing that drink with your friends? Just hit up our beer keg!

People naturally take advantage of these resources instead of stepping out of the office to cover personal needs. It becomes frowned upon to depart early in lieu of using the amenities. Through the guise of convenience, the office becomes life, and vice versa.  This is known as “work-life integration”.

Instead, an ideal culture should encourage employees to leave on time. Late nights are the exception, not the norm. And employees are given autonomy to take care of personal needs in their own way. If that means losing the climbing wall, so be it.

Life Becomes the Office

The other side of work-life integration means that life outside the office becomes joined with the workplace. This lets employees and owners leverage technology to work from exotic locations or spend more time with family. Technology offers flexibility and allows companies access to a larger talent pool of remote workers.

The dark side is that a company that touts work-life integration is probably one that expects constant communication with employees when they’re outside the office. In a recent New Yorker article, David Solomon, the global co-head of investment banking at Goldman Sachs, said, “Today, technology means that we’re all available 24/7. And, because everyone demands instant gratification and instant connectivity, there are no boundaries, no breaks.”

Work-life integration is problematic for creatives because creativity is improved by detaching and discombobulating from the office, not by living in a hybrid state between work and life. No boundaries and no breaks means no opportunity to reflect and think creatively.

Open Vacation Policies are Deceptive

Open vacation policies, shepherded by companies like Netflix and Virgin, typify the mixed bag of work-life integration and startup culture. These policies allow employees to take as much or as little vacation as needed. They are relatively new, so the long term effects are still to be seen. That said, many employees report being stressed while out of the office because they’re expected to be constantly reachable. As a result, the people who need a vacation the most aren’t compelled to take one.

What’s better for your creative juices: taking two weeks of complete vacation or three weeks of semi-vacation?

The Toys Go Unused

When you attend an interview and you’re touted with a ‘work hard, play hard’ sales pitch, have an honest conversation with your potential future peers before you accept any offers. The toys and flexible policies tend to fall by the wayside when things get busy.  From a business owner’s perspective, this makes investment in these resources seem questionable.

Shared Vision Trumps Side Projects

Tech startups tend to have assets like source code, patents, products, or inventory. People fall further down the list. With that in mind, devotion to a shared company vision usually trumps individual contributions. That’s not to say there’s no room for individuality at startups, but it’s often de-prioritized.

At creative firms, talent is the main asset. These firms have few physical assets, aside from computers and Adobe software. Talented professionals have passions that extend to side projects and other outside ventures. They apply learning from side projects to their main gig, and vice versa. A successful culture celebrates relevant side projects because they lead to a stronger company overall. This latitude is rarely encouraged at startups.

Final Thoughts

The problems with startup culture are certainly not the rule for every company that subscribes to policies or resources like the ones above. I’m sure there are plenty of startups that celebrate side projects, or offer great amenities while respecting boundaries.

But when you’re surrounded by a spread of enticing amenities and flexible policies, the natural effect is to jump on board. Instead, you should be skeptical and consider the hidden costs. These costs could mean the loss of autonomy and destruction of work-life balance and boundaries. For a lot of us, this could also mean the destruction of our personal creative processes.