Zynga - A Cautionary Tale

The news today that Zynga’s share price has tanked even further reminded me of an encounter I had with an employee of theirs a few years ago:

I was at the climbing gym chatting with some of the other people bouldering that morning. When asked what they did for a living, one of them responded, “We’re working in marketing at Zynga.”

“That’s awesome, man,” I said. “You guys are doing really well. Congratulations.”

“Yeah,” he said with a sigh, “it actually sucks a lot. At this point the equity isn’t that great and the pay is average. But they expect everyone to work fourteen hour days and come in on the weekends. And if you don’t, you’re not going to do very well there. But, you know, it’s a startup.”

What struck me most about the conversation we had was that, somehow, this guy wasn’t looking for work. He knew he was getting a raw deal (they all knew) and, whether out of feelings of obligation or fear of not having a job or, hell, maybe just blind hopefulness, he was plugging away at startup-founder hours anyway. And now, there’s little doubt that whatever equity he did manage to acquire before that job ate him alive is probably worth just enough to pay for a few months at the climbing gym.

The whole thing just makes me sad.

Startups, take care to scale your work expectations with your company. As you become more successful and your team grows, there will be people who you simply won’t be able to incentivize as easily as day-one employees and co-founders. Unless you’re willing to make the incentive difference up with cash, it’s honestly pretty unreasonable to expect founder-level-sleep-under-your-desk-for-a-week dedication. If you do, you’re going to wind up disappointed, on top of which you’re going to burn even the best employees. Try to take the long view, even if it’s hard to at the moment. You’re not just growing a product, you’re growing a company. The people you hire aren’t just important, they’re absolutely vital to your continued success. Treat them that way.

Startup employees, do not accept a crummy work environment simply because you’re at a startup. Just as the company has an obligation to treat you with respect, you have a responsibility to create the culture you want internally. If your company doesn’t represent the kind of culture you value (and you see no way to shift things), get the hell out of there. No amount of equity is worth hating your job. Startup culture is about passionately working on things you care about. All of the triumphant stories of late nights and long hours didn’t happen because those things were “company policy.” When you really love what you’re working on, you want to work just a few more hours. You wake up in the middle of the night with new ideas that you quickly email to your team. You work yourself ragged because you choose to. If you’re doing it because someone said you have to, stop. Make sure that you’re making the right sacrifices for the right reasons.


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