Simon Palmer’s blog

August 9, 2010

OnStartups, HubSpot, MadMen etc.

Filed under: Uncategorized — simonpalmer @ 4:41 pm

I read this OnStartups post with interest and tried to figure out my mixed emotions.  Here were my emotions:

Envy… frustration… annoyance… realisation… blog libido

So here I am blogging about it.

I recently joined a great company just outside Toronto (locally referred to as TO) and one of the first issues I face is getting a handle on where from, and how, we can attract talent into our business.  We have a great proposition, a great workplace atmosphere, a great customer list and a great set of backers.  Still, we struggle to attract technical talent from the pool available in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area for those of you outside Canada).

The GTA contains a large number of potential people and some great schools (Waterloo, UofT, Ryerson, McMaster to name but a few) turning out bright grads, docs etc.  It also contains some very different working and living environments, from Waterloo/Kitchener in the West to Markham in the East and Richmond Hill and Thornhill in the North.  And then there’s downtown Toronto, which is a vibrant international city with a diverse cultural and intellectual mix.

Basically there’s something for everyone, and you would think that in an environment like that a company like ours ought to find it easy to attract talent.  But we don’t.  In fact it is devilishly difficult to get a good stream of people into the front of our recruitment pipeline and I have been looking at why.

At this point I need to say that we are in West Mississauga (click for a Google map) which is not in Toronto. The GTA also has the worst traffic of any city I have lived in – by a long margin.  There isn’t really an alternative to a car for a lot of journeys and Toronto also sits on a major Canadian artery running East-West across the country, HWY 401.  Put this all together and if you are travelling into TO with the rush hour traffic, or out again, you can set aside a minimum of an hour in the car each way, and much more if there is any sort of traffic congestion, such as roadworks or accidents.  There are always roadworks and accidents.  I can’t understate how bad the traffic can be.

So, after a number of conversations with local recruiters I was in the process of accepting the obvious, which is that our location is the reason why we can’t mine the rich seam of talent that clearly exists around us.  I was also looking at the feasibility of an office downtown or in the K-W area to drop ourselves into the middle of the melting pot.  This is risky and expensive if it doesn’t work, so I’m not apologizing for thinking carefully about it.

As I did so I realised I was looking at location in the wrong way, it isn’t the cause any more than salary, package, working environment or technology choices are the cause.  In fact all location does is place another constraint, just like all those others, on the sorts of people who may be interested in working for us as a business.

Then the OnStartups blog post emerged and my cycle of emotions kicked in and this is where I got to.

I reject the notion that all good tech companies must, by definition, be staffed by young people, and that you have to create a workplace which panders to their very specific social needs.  In fact, those exact same people grow into mature adults with kids and a different set of needs.  As that happens none of their talent goes away – in fact it is augmented with experience and broader skills which make them more valuable, not less.  Why do they have to go from a loft downtown to a scrapheap in the suburbs?

So I wondered, what does the adult version of that set of (non-)policies in the OnStartups post look like?  I ask partly because this is a tier of the workforce that these sorts of businesses are clearly ignoring and partly because I am a crotchety old 40-something who resents the notion that all the talent exists below a tree-line which ends at 29, and I secretly harbor the notion that they are actually a bunch of  lazy and self-possessed children who have had very easy lives and think that the world owes them something.  Plus none of them have yet proven much.

If we can’t attract the kids to Mississauga because they are drinking beer and playing foosball downtown, then what about them in 5 years time when they have succumb to their girl/boy/friends and have moved out to a house with a minivan, a dog, a school round the corner, a back yard and 2 years of 3 hours sleep a night?  They are the same talented people but they don’t work as long and they care about a more structured set of policies on vacation, working hours, etc.

They may also have been dumped unceremoniously out of because the fancy office couldn’t be paid for out of revenues and their financiers called in their warrants when the hockey sticks turned out to be wooden spoons.  So they are more realistic and perhaps less productive – but they carry all the skills and talent, and they can’t all be managers.

I wonder what an ideal workplace and set of policies looks like for them…. (being provocative)… I want to create a “post-juvenile culture”

  1. Vacation policy = closed for Christmas
    …and 2 weeks in August
  2. We care which 37.5 hours a week you work
    …because we think you should spend quality time with your kids, because they’ll be happier and you’ll be happier, more loyal and will work harder while you are here – plus experience tells us that you’ll probably do better if you are mostly here – which aligns with the Agile manifesto which we espouse in reality, not in theory.  And we also know that a motivated, but otherwise committed, person like you will do whatever is necessary to make yourself, and us, a success.
  3. Extreme filtering
    If you want to know what’s going on in the heads of management come and ask.  We don’t want to blur your very busy, and slightly shortened, day with a load of irrelevant information for decisions in which, ultimately, you are unlikely to have much say.  It’s not because we are trying to hide anything, and where legally permissible we’ll fully disclose.  Instead it’s because there is always a strata of information which matches your role and makes you more effective, and a whole load of other stuff which is largely irrelevant to you – and we understand that and see it as part of our role to protect you from it
  4. Some doors policy
    We acknowledge that there are moments when you deserve some privacy to talk about things which are important to you.  As management we face this every day and don’t want you to feel like you have to air your dirty laundry with us as we sit between two developers.
  5. Free breakfast
    You probably squeaked out of the house with no time to grab a bite, come and have it on us at your desk
  6. Free beer
    Once a month at a bar/restaurant.  We’ll help you organize a babysitter and either a DD or a taxi home.  Please don’t drink in the office and drive home.
  7. Partnership with a local crèche and daycare
    We understand that the biggest challenge you face with young kids is what to do with them while you maintain some momentum in your career and how you deal with finding good quality care that you can both trust and afford.  You may not have a fancy office and a really great healthcare plan, but we’ll help with childcare costs – especially beyond the hours that the providers normally offer.  That means you don’t have to feel like you have to rush away at 2.30pm to drive the 45 minutes to daycare to pick up the kids while you do two conference calls on your earpiece in the car and wonder how long it’ll be before it becomes a career limiting issue.
  8. Social media policy = whatever
    Really, we care as little as you do
  9. Dress code = be respectful
    We are a professional organization and you are a professional person, your attire should reflect that.  We also have customers in the building on occasions with whom you will have worked very hard to establish the professional credentials of yourselves and our business.  We know you would not jeopardize all that hard work by dressing inappropriately.

That’s as far as I got before I realised that it was compelling enough to make a very nice workplace proposition in its own right.  I’m actively pressing this agenda with the people we think we would like to attract.  I’m also pursuing it internally to see how practical we think it would be for us as a business – we have to balance this agenda against our commercial business objectives – which are always missing from this sort of discussion.  I like it because it doesn’t necessarily mean we have to get a loft downtown to attract the talent – some of it is probably living within 20 minutes in the car, we just have to find it.


  1. Thanks for the articulate and well-reasoned response.

    You make some good points. Keep in mind that there are a number of things we do at HubSpot that might be specific to us — and we’re still a young company, so we don’t know whether these things are “right” or not.

    We do have “some doors” (basically, small private rooms where anyone can go to have a private conversation, phone call, etc.). We intentionally have a *lot* of these rooms.

    Candidly, I’m not a fan of the “beer in the fridge” policy myself. But, I’m not as fun-loving as many.

    Still stand completely behind the transparency policy and the “no dress code” policy. I think both of those make a lot of sense to me.

    In any case, thanks for furthering the discussion. More to think about.

    Comment by Dharmesh Shah — August 9, 2010 @ 5:26 pm

    • Dharmesh, please don’t take anything I say as a criticism of how you are going about HubSpot, my emotions started with envy, it sounds great. There’s no empirical “right” either. I think my strongest reaction is to the notion that young == better.

      Regarding dress code, we’re going to have to agree to disagree. At some point you are likely to have a complaint in the office that someone is offended by someone else’s dress – let’s hope it isn’t a paying customer. That may come about because of cultural sensitivities or a downright lack of decorum, either way you’ll have to deal with it.

      A true test of your principles will come in how you deal with it. You can let the complainer go because they are not the sort of person you want working in your office, you can have a quiet word with the alleged offender and ask them to change (which is fundamentally against your principles of anything goes) or you can institute a policy, which is where every other business in the world has ended up.

      Like knots in sailing, quite a few work policies have come about through necessity and have been honed by many careful hands over a long period of time.

      Comment by simonpalmer — August 9, 2010 @ 8:25 pm

  2. Hello Simon,
    I’m with you on much of this. There is evolution in all things and in this biz-cultural type context there will also be changes, as we have witness over the last decades. Right now I think we are just beginning to get our arms around what we can reasonably experiment with and apply without too much risk on the ground… There is a great distinction in my book between large systems, small systems on an axis; new and early stage and mature org-systems and then the application of these dimensions across various industries. Each industry (category) really does have a distinct type of human being as employee (contractors), much less the unique responsibilities that live within each org from CSR to CEO. I have done 12 start-ups in 30 years (I’m 53) and across 7 distinct industries… a great ride that is still in full swing for me, but the “human-factor” (IMHO) is always, and by far, the most complicated and innately entropic dance to dance. Best of luck to you in discovering your solutions for Hu-asset success.

    Comment by JohnBrian — August 9, 2010 @ 5:45 pm

  3. Although I am not a member of the corporate world, I have found this discussion to be very interesting. I agree with the majority of what Simon says. Maybe it is agenerational thing. I am 50, and am seeing the results of “feel good” mentality. It is not serving anybody well. Although a positive work atmosphere (no abuse, workers respect each other, reasonable benefits etc.) is necessary to attract and maintain employees, I can’t help but question the party atmosphere and it’s contribution to a company’s success.

    With regards to the problem with attracting employees due to traffic issues in your location…have you ever thought about a. Adjusting or allowing the adjustment of work hours to circumvent the rush hour traffic, and b. allowing employees to work from their homes.

    Comment by Bobbi — August 9, 2010 @ 6:07 pm

    • Bobbi, thanks for chipping in. Yes, we currently do both and it helps in some circumstances. However we also hold a few things dear, one of which is co-location as a way of improving communication and effectiveness. There have been a lot of studies into the effect of distributed teams and there are circumstances in which it can work well – I have managed distributed software development myself.

      In my current situation it doesn’t feel right, and it is necessary to be contextual when making an important workplace choice like that. It’s also fine – in my book – to say no to it if you think that the overall efficiency of the workplace would not benefit from it. It is a tough call.

      Comment by simonpalmer — August 9, 2010 @ 8:30 pm

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