Tech & Work

Can larger companies still be passionate and quirky?

Companies with fewer employees often have a quirkier environment. Can that spirit be maintained once a company grows?

Writing for The New York Times, Adam Bryant conducted an interview with Tony Hsieh, the chief executive of Zappos.com. Part of the interview that intrigued me was Hsieh's explanation of why he and his roommate sold their company LinkExchange to Microsoft in 1998.

Part of it was the money, he admits. But, mostly, it was because the passion and excitement that permeated the company in the beginning was gone, and he'd grown to dislike its culture:

"When it was starting out, when it was just 5 or 10 of us, it was like your typical dot-com. We were all really excited, working around the clock, sleeping under our desks, had no idea what day of the week it was. But we didn't know any better and didn't pay attention to company culture. By the time we got to 100 people, even though we hired people with the right skill sets and experiences, I just dreaded getting out of bed in the morning and was hitting that snooze button over and over again."

To avoid this happening with Zappos, Hsieh says he formalized the definition of the Zappos culture into 10 core values; core values that they would be willing to hire and fire people based on. Read the interview with Hsieh for details on how they went about this.

I think it's an admirable goal — to try to maintain an exciting culture by formalizing hiring guidelines to support it. At least they're making an effort.

But I wonder if any company can maintain, at 100 employees, the same culture they had at 5 or 10 employees. It has always seemed to me that when a company grows, it has to make concessions in order to introduce needed processes and procedures.

For example, whereas one could make personnel decisions on a casual basis in a very small company, you have to follow formal procedures more closely in bigger companies in order to be fair and avoid prejudicial practices. You can't just promote someone on a whim if there are several other people who are interested in the same position and would be upset if not given an opportunity to apply.

I will go out on a limb here and say that goals and priorities are always clearer and feel more personal in a smaller company than in bigger companies.

I once worked for a publishing startup that had us working all hours — not because long hours were required but because we all felt a great sense of accomplishment at, say, getting a book to the printer seconds before a deadline. But the larger the company is, the less an individual employee can see how his or her contribution directly affects the company. And the result is a less passionate environment.

The communication is less frequent in a large company since there are more channels for it to travel through, so things aren't felt as immediately either.

At least that's how it's always been in my experience. I wonder if this phenomenon of growth can be "managed out"?

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Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

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