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The key to startup culture: 'Work hard, play hard'

After visiting startups for the past few months to gather footage for my Startup Spotlight series, a few cultural commonalities stand out to me: a fun and relaxed atmosphere, the willingness to take a risk and passion.

Granted, when I visit and film people, the camera could have something to do with the level of excitement employees display. Still, all four startups faking it in the same way? I don’t buy it.

Besides, as a Millennial, I know that the drive to find a job that you’re passionate about, that allows you try something new and different, and, heck, even save the world, is a real thing. Naïve? Maybe.

But I see that drive in the people — young and old — who work at these startups. That’s why I think startup culture works and why larger companies want to implement it into their own culture.

One of the things startups seem to do well: Find a balance between hard work and fun.

I’ve walked around startup offices and seen employees talking on personal cellphones, lounging on bean bag chairs, riding a scooter, and even playing ping pong and foosball — all during “work hours.” I’ve also seen people bounce around on yoga balls right in front of the CEO. It didn’t faze him.

Sometimes I wonder how they get their work done. And my hypothesis is this: You how when you’re working and it becomes hard to concentrate? For most of us, it would look bad to take a 30-minute break and stare into space or surf Facebook or play games on your phone. Startups, on the other hand, seem to embrace the idea that inspiration and creativity come when they come. You can’t force it. But when lightning strikes, people work their butts off. If they’ve hit a roadblock, they take a break to get the creative juices flowing again.

Startups are also unafraid to experiment. They are willing to put everything on the line and fail. Because who knows? The idea or project could just work, and could be revolutionary. But they’re also willing to cut their losses either.

Patrick Surry, chief data scientist at the startup Hopper, a search engine that helps people get the best deals on flights, explained it best. For our CIO and IT readers, it’s worth quoting him in full:

“A lot of what we do at Hopper is figure out what the right way to position and deliver the solution to the problem is. It’s challenging — we build stuff, we throw stuff away, and then we build new stuff.

“It requires a certain kind of attitude I think among the developers. You have stuff you’ve worked on for three months and then we decide to throw it away and do something different. That can be frustrating for some people. And I think for others that’s part of  [the attraction].

“I think a lot of companies get bogged down because you’ve created something that sort of works and you have to continue to maintain it forever. I think as a startup you have the luxury of saying ‘Hey, that doesn’t work. Let’s try something else, both from a kind of business point of view but also from an infrastructure point of view.”

Startups may have more freedom to experiment than established companies, but the attitude is worth modeling at any company hoping to keep up in a rapidly evolving market.

The willingness to take risks and employee passion are the traits that stand out at the startups I’ve visited. Whether those traits result in a viable business, time will tell. In the meantime, those working at startups are excited about what they’re doing. They believe they are working toward changing the world. (And maybe they are.)

And I think that’s what dictates the startup culture. It’s not the bean bags, foosball, ping pong, or freedom to goof around. It’s that employees believe they’re working to make a difference.

Alan Berrey, CEO and founder of Scratch Wireless, a “Wi-Fi First” mobile provider, summed it up during my interview with him: “Look, Scratch Wireless is a blast. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I love it here, I love the people that work here, we’re having a great time together, we make a lot of fun of each other, we take a lot of things very lightly but we take also the things that are important or serious very seriously as well. And we really hope to change the model for the cell phone services throughout the world.”

Let us know what you think about the story; email Kristen Lee, features writer, or find her on Twitter @Kristen_Lee_34.

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