July 1, 2013
Are startup perks turning workers into fat cats?
Within my first week of working at a New York City startup, I acquired a gut. The reason was obvious: There was free food everywhere, it was delicious and I was nervous. Within five days I was heaving my stomach around like a kettle bell and crossly preparing, and then ignoring, cups of green tea.
It all started so innocently. On Monday, warm cookies from the Upper West Side bakery Levain appeared in the kitchen. Buttercream cupcakes followed; apparently it was somebody’s birthday. (It is always somebody’s birthday.) At noon, employees gathered for a catered lunch of barbecue. Two hours later, a Pinkberry station rolled into the office with the full battery of toppings. I helped myself to an incapacitating dose. By 5 p.m. my dress had grown so tight around the middle that I had to unzip it to my coccyx and put a sweater on top just to breathe.
And that was only the first day.
My employer, eyewear company Warby Parker, is not unusual. Small, high-growth tech companies have had a reputation for showering employees with lavish perks since the Silicon Valley bubble days. At Sun Microsystems, nursing mothers were provided lounges for breast-feeding and an on-call “lactation consultant.” Cisco offered dry-cleaning services and popcorn. Pinball machines lined the hallways at Excite@Home.
In his recent book, “Finding the Next Steve Jobs,” Nolan Bushnell, who founded Atari, recommends keeping toys in the office and allowing employees to nap on the clock -- like Steve Jobs, who installed a futon beneath his desk.
But New York’s tight market for skilled startup labor has produced an even more sophisticated arms race.
Made to order
Take Squarespace, a Web publishing platform founded in 2004. On a recent Friday afternoon, employees sat serenely in the firm’s SoHo offices, the room silent except for rapid keyboard clicks. A slim woman wearing her hair in a topknot ferried dishes of shrimp gumbo and quinoa salad to a buffet; midday meals for Squarespace employees are prepared four days a week. (On the fifth day, they order out.) Gluten-free and vegetarian options are offered at each meal, as well as a fridge stocked with Tecate and Red Bull.
On another morning at Tumblr headquarters on East 21st Street, a young man in futuristic shoes poured a glass of seltzer (it’s on tap) and sat down to breakfast: a plate piled with bacon. His co-workers nibbled at pastries, sipped high-end coffee and rooted around the fridge for their favorite flavor of Chobani yogurt. Greek yogurt, in fact, is one of the most popular startup perks.
“For a treat-loving man such as myself, the office is a great environment,” says Martin Mulkeen, 29, a senior editor at Birchbox on East 28th Street.
And let’s not forget the basics.
“We have cold-brewed coffee at all times,” says Dan Logan, 28, the director of product marketing at Bitly in the Union Square area. Bitly workers (“Bitizens,” they call themselves) might also prepare beverages from the office’s Jura Impressa X9 Platinum, which pumps out cappuccinos at the touch of a button. (The machines start at $6,495.)
“I was not a coffee drinker at all before I started StyleUp,” says Kendall Herbst, 29, a former Lucky magazine editor who co-founded the personal styling service. “Now it’s my lifeblood.”
Artsy, an art appreciation platform, hosts a weekly happy hour in its Chinatown office that features 360-degree views of Manhattan (and beer on tap). Birchbox keeps its fridge supplied with Champagne for celebrations, and Tumblr also offers beer on tap (this week: an aromatic, malty IPA). But when it comes to spirits, lifestyle publication Thrillist reigns supreme, with two fully stocked bars and a rotating schedule of liquor tastings.
“Whiskey, tequila: It’s always available,” says Devon Giddon, 27, the company’s director of communications. “Not to mention the kegerator.”
The what? “It’s a keg in the fridge, so it’s always cold.”
Working it off
With startups subsidizing round-the-clock snacking and drinking, it’s easy to pack on weight. Rather than institute a dress code of elastic-waist pants, many companies offer free gym memberships, yoga classes and group SoulCycle outings to keep employees in fighting form. Birchbox has a mini-gym inside the office.
“We have random hula-hooping sessions,” says Melissa Enbar, 29, the company’s director of recruiting.
For those immune to the temptations of a Michael Phelps-style caloric regimen, other distractions are available. Spotify hands out free concert tickets and treats employees to performances from artists like Sheryl Crow, while Chartbeat workers play with office puppies in the puppytorium (also known as the backroom). Birchbox employees can sign up to get manicures and haircuts in the office.
“We try to facilitate an environment where employees feel really comfortable,” says Andrew Burke, 28, the head of talent development at Squarespace. “It pays off in terms of the work that is done and the results that happen.”
But the escalation of perks can lead to sticky situations.
“Once you set a precedent, it can be difficult to take things away,” Burke says, citing an iTunes account that allowed Squarespace employees to guest-disc jockey the office music.
Trouble arose when employees began to play “random stuff that wasn’t necessarily on par with how others were vibing.”
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Unlimited vacation, which most of the startups in this article offer, also provides a clear opportunity to overindulge, although no employer seemed to have a problem with it -- perhaps because daily life in their offices has much in common with an all-inclusive resort.
And not surprisingly, employees are quick to defend their perks.
“I don’t think having beer at the office is decadent,” says Mulkeen of Birchbox.
Other employees made a convincing case that they spend more time at work thanks to the ambient luxuries.
My grass may be green, but yours is greener
And some even display “perks envy.”
“I’ve heard that one company has Juice Press juices in their communal fridge that you can take,” says Herbst of StyleUp, her voice wistful. “That’s quite a nice perk that I would love to have.” (A 17-ounce bottle runs about $9.)
Burke of Squarespace says: “I heard that one place pays for someone to clean your apartment. The more we see companies escalating with perks, the more we’ll hear about things that seem outrageous.”
Bushnell of Atari, a veteran of the startup world, was asked where he draws the line between “productive perk” and “wanton decadence.”
His answer: Well, he doesn’t.
“I’ve often felt that it is somehow wrong to have an engineer spend any time at all scrubbing his own toilet,” he says. “It sounds elitist, but these people are highly important to the economy and to the company. Offering maid service to them as a perk makes total sense.”
Katia Beauchamp, 30, a Birchbox founder, has a different perspective.
“I often think of the analogy between this and being a parent,” she says. “You want to give people every opportunity, but sometimes you make a decision to hold back because you know it’s better not to have a spoiled child.”
For me, the lesson quickly sank in. As much as I enjoyed vacuuming up cookies, I couldn’t afford to outgrow all of my new work clothes. Since then, I’ve kept a lid on my treat consumption. If I fail, a company-subsidized gym membership awaits me.
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