Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
My Company is a Family (edward-kim.com)
34 points by edawerd on June 19, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 55 comments



> Firstly, it’s important to remember that when I use the word “family,” I don’t mean the literal sense of the word.

Just don't use the word family then.

Since you didn't stop there, though...

Nah, your company isn't a family. Because when financial shit hits the fan everyone will split in every which direction and be very unlikely to ever interact with you again.

Culture, and a good and fair culture at that, is what companies should be striving for. Pretending to be a family when that won't be reciprocated 100% of the time (or at least nine-nines of the time, because hey, no family is perfect) like a real family is manipulative.

Scenario: I'm your VC and the latest numbers force me to tell you to lay off 75% of your employees. Go go gadget, deploy this "family" thing you speak of.


"Culture persists, family is immutable."


How many of your employees would come to work if you didn't pay them? How many of your employees would continue to work for you if they were offered twice the salary elsewhere? My guess is that none of them would, and while they may genuinely enjoy working for your company, they're really working there only because it's the best deal they can currently get.

From the other side: if your company's revenues suddenly plummeted, would you take on personal debt to pay your employees' salaries until sales improved, or would you lay off your employees?

See, it's not a family, it's a business.


I disagree that people work at companies because it's the best "deal" they can get. True, we live in a capitalist society, but money is not the only variable in the equation. A good culture is not the only other variable either.


I work for an awesome bunch of people, friends and colleagues. But I wouldn't ditch my family for them.

If I could improve my family's fortunes in some meaningful way, I'd be out the door in a few days.


Culture is part of the deal. People will trade bad culture and more money for good culture and shit money. It's person dependant, but to deny that people do this is injudicious.


And there are all sorts of other non-monetary things that are part of the overall deal: commute time, what city the company is in, what industry the company is in, etc. (In economic terms, the employee is maximizing their complicated utility function over a large number of variables, one of which is money.)


I'm pretty sure that people work at companies because it was the first acceptable deal and a combination of momentum and fear of unemployment keeps them from leaving unless, or even when, they are aggressively miserable.


I prefer the "we're not a family, we're a sport team" analogy. You're (1) together to achieve a specific goal and (2) expect everyone to perform to accomplish that goal.

There are similarities: you come together in times of difficulty. You have fun together. You support each other.

There are difference too. In a family, roles are diffuse. In a team, they're specific and critical. You don't, and can't, fire your uncle for his bad, racist jokes. You do fire that asshole at your workplace. A good team will understand everyone has slumps and challenges, but at some point, if you can't perform, you don't play.

A team comes together to play, to win. It's voluntary and it's goal driven. When I go to work, I want to be part of team. When I go home, I want to be part of a family. There's an important difference.


I assume he's probably second- or third-generation Korean-American, so maybe the word "family" doesn't invoke quite the same meaning to him as me, but I find it rather icky.

In Korea there have been companies, small and big, saying they're like families. Usually, that's a code word for saying "We expect you to sacrifice your life, including your health, time, and relationship to your actual family, for the good of the company, and not want anything in return."

I'm sure Edward Kim meant none of this, but still that's a metaphor I won't touch with a ten-foot pole in a corporate setting.


Yeah but there are downsides to that.

1. What if you already have a family? When it's 5'o clock, would you rather go home to your spouse and kids, or go on a company bar crawl?

2. I am friendly with people who I work with. But if we didn't work together, we'd have no reason to speak to each other. You're going to pass out on a lot of great workers if you insist everyone be your friend. Why can't a co-worker relationship suffice?

3. If you're company is too friendly, and begins to think alike, I'd be wary of groupthink.

4. That nickname thing seems like it'd get annoying fast.


1. That's perfectly fine! We have people who work until 5:30 3 days out of the week, and work 2 days from home. Nothing about the company being a family precludes you from having your own.

2. No one's forcing anyone to be friends with anyone. And truth be told, not everyone is best buddies with everyone at work. But given the option to choose, I'd rather work with friends than co-workers. I do realize that's not for everyone though.


"I'd rather work with friends than co-workers."

You might come to regret this if you ever have to fire one of your friends. You're a manager/owner of the business, and you need to realize that the people who report to you have a very different relationship with you than they have with each other (even if it's not obvious to you) - you sign their paychecks, you can fire or promote them, etc.

I speak from the experience of having been a manager whose friendship with his staff made it hard to make the most effective business decisions.


"Nothing about the company being a family precludes you from having your own."

There is something: time. You only have time for one family. When the rest of the team is on a company bike ride and you're the odd one out, taking your kids to a birthday party, you're gonna be left out on the in jokes, the bonding, etc. Then you'll start being left out of the loop at work. Someone will forget to email you important project details (Oh don't you remember, we talked about this at the bike ride. Wait, I forgot, you weren't there. My bad!). Company productivity will suffer, and outcast employees will grow increasingly isolated.

"No one's forcing anyone to be friends with anyone."

Yes you are. That's what family is. A group of people you didn't chose to associate with, but still have to pretend to like. And after reading the article, that sounds exactly like what you're doing.


"...I only consider a couple of them close enough to call my brothers... ...My “brothers” know all about me and I them, just like my real sisters do..."

Subtle sexism aside: hanging out, enjoying being together and having nicknames does NOT make you a family, and this is where OP misses the point. And you expose the naivety here:

"As it turns out, making decisions to protect our family is often the best way for us to achieve our goals as a team."

And when those goals are not aligned? When a member of your "family" isn't playing as part of the "team" do you stand by them, or do you do what's best for your company. Should you? What happens when they prioritise their real family over the company one?

No, this is dangerous for your staff. You're selling something that you cannot deliver in the long run. When you're exposed you're going to really hurt people that I do think you care about.


> Subtle sexism aside

Uh, what? How did that sentence display any sexism?


The company is a family of "brothers", hundreds of friends but only a few "brothers".

Consider how that sounds to a woman considering a position there. I'm not saying it's deliberate, but it's sending a message.


Sometimes I feel like people are trying to be offended... If you look at the full quote, he wasn't talking about his company. He was talking about his friends in his personal life.

"Allow me to draw an example from my personal life. I have hundreds of friends, but I only consider a couple of them close enough to call my brothers. They call me the same. That doesn’t mean we have the same mother and came from the same womb. It’s simply a way to say that my relationship with them is more akin to the one I have with my two actual sisters than it is to most of my friendships. My “brothers” know all about me and I them, just like my real sisters do."

Maybe the only close friends he has that are as close as family are male. Are you suggesting he's sexist for that?


I'm suggesting that he should be mindful of what he's saying, and how that impacts his staff, and the message that he's projecting to future hires.

I really don't mind if people roll their eyes at me :) just that they consider the possibility that it was a poor choice of words.


I wouldn't agree that it was a poor choice of words. The kind of people who are so sensitive that they get offended by trivial things like that are not the kind of people I'd want working with/for me.

And yes, that's a value judgment of mine that it's "trivial". Others are welcome to feel differently, but I'm welcome to (as you put) roll my eyes, and think it's a bit silly.


It's only sending a message if you're looking for one. Did you consider that it could simply be that he was describing the current state of affairs? He only has male employees, so they're his brothers. If they hire a woman, it'd be "brothers and sisters" or simply "siblings".

I agree with the sibling poster that it seems like some people go out of their way to be offended.


> It's only sending a message if you're looking for one.

Conversely, consider that you don't see the message because it's inclusive (I assume) for you.

It's interesting that you also said:

> The kind of people who are so sensitive that they get offended by trivial things like that are not the kind of people I'd want working with/for me

I mean, sure it's trivial to you. But what if it wasn't. What if your boss used language that excluded you for some reason. Would you still not want to work with me when I went to bat for you?

I guess the family/team thing is a good analogy, in the end. In a family you have to put up with your racist/sexist/whatever-ist family and love them regardless. In a team you don't put up with that shit, because you don't have to.

I'd rather work with a team.


I mean, sure it's trivial to you. But what if it wasn't. What if your boss used language that excluded you for some reason. Would you still not want to work with me when I went to bat for you?

In that hypothetical situation, I'd of course want to work with you because you were standing up for me, obviously. I wouldn't want to work for the boss because he offended me -- well, I can't say I wouldn't want to work for him; it depends on his reaction to being called out on it.

But that's kinda the overall point: some people are offended by some things, and some people aren't. Just because I take offense to something someone says to me, it doesn't mean it's actually offensive (and vice versa). I want to associate with people who aren't offended by things I consider trivial and non-offensive, and I don't want to associate with people who offend me and think it's ok.

And that not set in stone: it's certainly happened in my life where I'd say things that I didn't find offensive, but after getting called on it and hearing other perspectives, over time I would change my mind.

I just get a bit worried that, considering how much we discuss and consider issues of sex and race here, we tend to take completely innocent statements and blow them out of proportion. Intent does matter, to a certain extent. The line where something where "no offense was intended" goes from "ok, no big deal" to "offensive regardless of intent" is different for everyone. But I feel like that line tends to swing toward the latter much too soon for sex/race issues, to the point where it gets hard to genuinely express yourself without a very high risk of offending someone.


"Area CEO Likes To Think Of Family As Small, Close-Knit Business": http://www.theonion.com/articles/area-ceo-likes-to-think-of-...


Hahaha first thing I thought of when I saw this article.


"Family" is the wrong word. In the army, you get "brothers in arms". Maybe what you have is brothers in armchairs.


Wait until you hire someone who seems perfect and (a couple years later) turns out to be the family's "black sheep". And have you ever noticed how clique-filled large family reunions can seem? I predict your coziness will disappear gradually as you grow.


>We eat meals in the office around the dining table.

Yes, teams never eat together

>Most everyone has nicknames for each other.

This is certainly a thing no athlete does.

>We take our shoes off in the office

You're right; athletes hate being comfortable

>Not everything we do together is all about work.

Again, you're so right. Sports teams do not ever hang out together outside of practice.


Ick. I would hate to have a job dominate my life like this.

To each their own, I guess.


serious question: how many senior executives, long time employees, loved by their peers and core to the company culture, have you been forced to terminate?

maybe you've done it and your team is still tight like family. if so, good on you. in my experience, when that happens people realize that work is business, not personal. in a family, you can't terminate someone.


I'm confused by the notion that using nicknames mean you're substantially closer to someone than you would be as members of a team. This is, actually, extremely surprising to me, given my previous experience on sports teams! Sports, in particular, has it's fair share of intermittent shoelessness and chatting about other subjects as well.


Are you willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice for me?

That's the only bar for this word. Other than that, you're just people linked together by checking accounts and employee contracts.

The only other organization I've worked for that matches that standard was the US Marine Corps. It's a head trip to leave that community and reintegrate into society.


Sounds more like a team than a family.

One of the primary distinguishing characteristics of a family is that members never exit the family once they are in. A second is that families are decidedly not meritocratic.


I wish you the best, but has it occurred to you that the inmates of a prison have meals around the same table, and if one can believe the movies they have nicknames, too?


Get your laptops off of your crotches. Macbooks especially run hot and you are heating your sexual reproductive organs. That is not good for your ability to procreate particularly in males. It can even have long-term effects.

http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/17664.php I'm not sure about the credibility of this link, but I would do the research myself.


As someone who was close to a real family who happens to operate a company together, I'd say the only thing that kept them together was the fact that they took great pains to separate business from family life.

The biggest challenge they had as a family was people taking the work roles home with them.


Knock it off. You run a business not a family. The divisiveness of using such a term is appalling.


If it works for you and your fellow members then that's great. I enjoyed seeing a quick view of how your office runs. There are obvious downsides, but also obvious upsides. Sound's like a fun commune that actually makes some money!


> "Firstly, it’s important to remember that when I use the word 'family,' I don’t mean the literal sense of the word. 'Family' is a metaphor" ... AND then I stopped reading.


This is so infantilizing. I'm your employee. I'm not your child. We have an agreement - I do work for you, you pay me. I like you, otherwise I wouldn't work for you. But I'm not your family member. I don't want to spend every waking moment with you. I don't want to see you after work very often. I have my own life, with my own opinions, and my own thoughts, i.e. my own identity that exist outside of work at your company. Your company may be your life, that's fine. It isn't mine.


Infantilizing? Let's see...

"Most everyone has nicknames for each other. Puzzles, Muscles, Numbers, Hustles, Waffles, Bubbles..."

Yup.


It's completely fine that you feel that way, but many people (including the author and the other employees of ZenPayroll) feel differently. It's great that they can work for a company that fits their ideals, and that you can do the same. No need to vehemently argue for your way or dismiss theirs.


You're missing a few points:

1. Not everybody who works at these companies welcomes the blurring of their personal and professional lives equally. There are absolutely employees who want an employer to provide a social experience, but you shouldn't assume that there aren't others who merely tolerate it because they want the job.

2. These types of environments create a certain level of peer pressure among employees. Don't want to go on weekend bike rides with the folks you work with because you have a significant other, friends of your own, etc.? Want to lunch quietly by yourself and recharge for the afternoon? Prefer not to do your happy hour drinking with your coworkers? Be careful. If you too frequently refuse to engage with your "family" outside of regular work hours, it's likely to be noticed. That's problematic when your employment is contingent on "culture fit."

3. From what I can tell, more and more companies, especially younger startups in San Francisco, have this type of approach, so it's increasingly difficult to escape if you're dead set on working at a typical early-stage startup here.


You make some good points, and I tend to personally agree because such work environments rub me the wrong way. It feels a little cultish and I like to have a little space between my personal and professional. But I also agree with the GP that we should leave room for different company cultures.

The bottom line is all company cultures are dysfunctional in some way, and being a little co-dependent and insular is far from the worst crime. I'll take that any day over a place where good technical work is unrecognized or gets downright stifled because of politics.


> But I also agree with the GP that we should leave room for different company cultures.

I don't disagree at all. I would simply note, however, that there are a lot of startups out there complaining about how difficult it is to find talent. In many cases, an inane focus on building a "family" and hiring for "cultural fit" contributes to the challenge of attracting and retaining talent. It's somewhat surprising more founders don't recognize this.

> ...being a little co-dependent and insular is far from the worst crime. I'll take that any day over a place where good technical work is unrecognized or gets downright stifled because of politics.

I would suggest that these hyper-social environments are just as likely, if not more likely, to produce the type of outcome you loathe.

When you're constantly socializing with your coworkers and your social circle becomes dominated by your colleagues, it's much more difficult to separate your personal biases from your professional behavior. In practical terms, this means popular employees who are good at what they do get ahead, popular employees who aren't as good as less popular employees still get ahead, and popular employees who don't pull their weight are far more likely to be cut some slack than less popular employees who don't deliver. This is popularity-based politics and it's absolutely detrimental to a company's success.


I'm not missing that at all, and I totally get that. In my early professional life I wanted a much more strict separation between work and non-work, but I've since changed.

To address your points:

1. I think it's up to the founders and early employees to set the culture they want. It will usually change as the company grows, but my general feeling is that if you don't like a company's culture, don't join it. Yes, it sucks if you get a bad feel for it while interviewing, or are misled, but that should be the exception, not the rule.

2. The author of the original article actually directly addressed this, and pointed out that not everyone joins in, and it's ok. The kind of atmosphere where there's that pressure is indeed pretty toxic, but I don't think the family-type culture necessarily has that bug... though they certainly are a place where it can breed. But again: if you (as a founder/early employee) are willing to put up with a much smaller talent pool in search of people who really truly fit the culture you want, that's your choice and your business.

3. That's definitely a genuine concern, but I don't think it's ever really been any other way at small, early startups, at least in the Valley. My experience is certainly not extensive, but for the work-your-ass-off early startup type, they just tend to end up that way, because you spend so much time with your colleagues that closer bonds just end up forming.

On the other hand, the non-crazy, have-a-life-outside-work type early startup is also a thing, and (I would guess) tends not to have that type of approach.


"if you (as a founder/early employee) are willing to put up with a much smaller talent pool in search of people who really truly fit the culture you want, that's your choice and your business."

It's your choice, unless your cultural norms are systematically (although perhaps not explicitly) discriminating against certain legally protected classes of people who are less likely to "fit in" to your culture. For example:

- Women might not enjoy beer and pizza and sports as much as men do, so they "wouldn't be a good cultural fit".

- People over 40, who have their own families and don't want to spend time socializing at work? They "wouldn't be a good cultural fit".

- Members of religious groups who can't eat the food or drink the alcohol you serve at the office, e.g., religious Jews or Muslims? They just "wouldn't be a good cultural fit".

So whenever these kinds of people apply for jobs at your company, you always pass them up in favor of someone who is a better cultural fit.

See the problem?


I see the potential legal problem, but I don't see the... moral(?) problem.

This goes both ways, though. If I fell into one of these groups you describe, and interviewed at this hypothetical company, assuming I got a good taste of this culture during the interview process, I wouldn't want to work there anyway. So what, should the company give me an offer, and I accept it, only to be miserable because I don't fit in with my colleagues?

Real discrimination is a problem. Not hiring women, or people of a particular color or religious group, etc. because you "don't like them" is horrible. But that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about people being deemed a poor culture fit on an individual, case-by-case basis. It's not saying, "we're not going to consider Muslim candidates because they won't drink", it's saying, "we brought this guy in, and after talking with him, we decided not to give him an offer because he doesn't fit socially/culturally". And while his religion might -- coincidentally -- be the root of that, I don't see that as discriminatory in the legal sense. (Of course it's "discriminatory" in the dictionary-definition sense, but so is "discriminating" against someone without the required qualifications.) I see this as people who want to work with people who they really gel with, and while that might be unfortunate (different points of view informed by different backgrounds is almost universally an advantage), I believe it's a valid choice for people in a company (especially a new, small one) to make.


The courts seem to be concerned with the results of hiring criteria, not simply whether they're intentionally discriminatory. For example, there was a ruling that a written employment exam for a fire department that disproportionately more white people than minority people passed was illegal discrimination, since it had no particular relevance to the candidate's ability to be a good firefighter. (On the other hand, a test to see whether you could carry an average-weight person out of a burning building would be OK, even if it excluded most women, since it was job-related.) Similarly, a candidate's willingness to drink has no relevance to their ability to be a good developer.


> I think it's up to the founders and early employees to set the culture they want. It will usually change as the company grows, but my general feeling is that if you don't like a company's culture, don't join it.

Your "it will usually change as the company grows" observation is worth discussing further.

The reality is that "culture" as a lot of people in the Valley think of it simply doesn't scale. The environment you have at 10 employees is going to be different than the environment you had at 5 employees, the environment you have at 75 employees is going to be different than the environment you had at 25 employees, and so on and so forth. No matter how hard you try, the "culture" is going to change.

Now, I won't argue that at the earliest stages of a company, how well folks get along is important. But a lot of founders over-optimize the wrong things (such as extracurricular activities) under the guise of "culture" and "culture fit" because they naively believe that folks can't get along and do great work if they don't have an environment that forces employees to form social bonds that resemble the type of social bonds that exist between friends and family.

It's sad that more founders don't understand the concept of corporate values. Instead of trying to hire folks who look the same and want essentially the same experience from their job, it is possible to build a strong, diverse organizations united by shared values.


Oh, I absolutely agree with that. Re-reading my posts, I realize I wasn't clear: I definitely don't think much of this is valid or useful when talking about a company that's grown beyond 75 or so. The SV notion of company culture absolutely does not scale.

But when you're 5 people, or, I'd even argue, 15, 30, or 50, working your asses off to get your first product to market, "getting along" in all those ways can be extremely important.

Ironically, the only company where I've worked where there were somewhat-forced social activities was a large (>300 people) one, with the "HR bullshit" team-building exercises and the like. The small companies I've worked at certainly have had company-organized activities, but they always felt (to me, at least) much more informal and optional. My main examples are a company I joined at ~12 people, and left around 100, and another company where I joined around 60, and is now probably pushing 300.

My current job is interesting because I was there when we had the company-organized stuff that most people wanted to participate in (while those who didn't were free to abstain, and there wasn't pressure to conform). Now we're getting large enough to either not have those things anymore, or have things that try to appeal to everyone, which ends up feeling more forced sometimes. On the plus side, we're still doing one-off informal things all the time that are generally employee-driven (rather than "official"), and the different activities attract different sub-groups within the company who are interested in those things.

It's sad that more founders don't understand the concept of corporate values. Instead of trying to hire folks who look the same and want essentially the same experience from their job, it is possible to build a strong, diverse organizations united by shared values.

I don't necessarily see that as good or bad. A strong, diverse organization isn't going to be the same (socially) as a more homogeneous org. I'm not going to draw a value judgment about either of those, because I think they're both valid choices that each company should be permitted to make for themselves (assuming they aren't actively discriminating against protected classes). It's certainly a choice that affects the company's trajectory and probably likelihood of success, but, again, I think that's a choice. Maybe the diverse org will net you a $1bn exit, and the "socially-integrated" choice gets you a $250mn exit, or even no exit at all. IMO it's about the journey and whether you felt it was a worthwhile experience.


I would take point #2 a step further. These types of environments breed cliques. These cliquish groups will unite based on social similarities that are not work related. The elements on which they will unite will effect their working relationships. Those who are part of the clique will facilitate each other's projects. The problem comes only when there are people that are outside of the clique.

Those who are outside of the clique thus be ostracized. Their projects will be held back in order to feed the power of the clique. The social friendships will become the decisive power in the company. This power is stronger than the CEO's. New employees will quickly see the unspoken pecking order. They will have to acquiesce or be at a huge disadvantage.

Such is the nature of cliques inside of a supposedly flat hierarchy. Families are generally flat hierarchies and thus can succumb to these kinds of clique problems.


Your "normal day" photo shows people working on laptops in all sorts of uncomfortable positions.

Does being like a family preclude you from using desks and chairs like normal people, or I'm missing something?

Or maybe you work 10 minutes at a time and have a break. It's the only way I can imagine working in that space.


I noticed this too. Seems distracting as hell to have everyone in the same tiny living room. It's fun for movie night, but not a place I'd wanna work.


For the record, people don't work here only on sofas and floors. Everyone has desks and most people work at them. But once in a while, I enjoy working on a couch.




Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact

Search: