Going to school at CU Boulder, I’m not entirely unfamiliar with startup culture. Boulder is home to some incredibly talented entrepreneurs like Brad Feld, and rapidly growing companies like Tendril. So when I decided to accept an internship at ThoughtSpot in Palo Alto, CA, I thought I had some idea of what I was walking into. I couldn’t have been more misguided.
It’s taken me a while to figure out what makes Silicon Valley so different from anywhere else that I’ve been. It’s more than free lunches and a fully stocked pantry, more than the adjustable desk and new Mac computer. And it’s more than the sunshine and warm weather, although after a rainy May in Boulder the sun was certainly a welcome sight. More than any of these things, it’s an attitude that the people in Silicon Valley and it’s many startups share. It’s infectious, and makes you wake up in the morning ready to attack the day. Let me try and describe some of the characteristics that set this place apart:
Of course I’m going to change the world
This can come off as a bit obnoxious sometimes, but I think it’s one of the keys to being successful as a startup. There are no shortage of people who want to tell you that your idea or your company isn’t going to make it, and you have to act deaf at times to block them out. If any company ultimately want to make it they need to adopt this attitude. But it also seems to apply for the individual employees at companies like ThoughtSpot. Everyone here seems to have a long-term vision, which is crucial for making it as a startup. While it sometimes feels overly ambitious, there are many companies here who truly do have an opportunity to change the way we interact with the world around us. Believing that you can change the world might make you seem a bit arrogant prick, but it’s a crucial part of becoming a great tech company.
Come and go as you please
I was told ThoughtSpot had relatively loose office hours, but there really wasn’t any way for me to know that I would be walking into an almost empty office at 9am on a Monday morning. I figured there must be some sort of a company event or retreat happening. “Ohh no” someone in HR told me. “Most of the engineers won’t show up until some time between 10 and noon.” The latest would show up close to 2pm.
The nature of a computer programmer’s work gives them a lot more flexibility when it comes to their hours. You’ll never see a construction worker starting his day at 10 or noon, forcing himself to struggle through the hottest part of the day. It would make his work unnecessarily miserable. But the attitude is what’s key here: No one cares what time you come to work, as long as you get your work done and perform when it’s crunch time. At the end of the day everyone trusts each other to get their part done, to come through when it counts. And if you have that level of trust then 9 to 5 ultimately seems pretty pointless.
Competition, but not without cooperation
There’s a fine balance between competition and cooperation that can be tricky to find. At ThoughtSpot some of the ping pong matches start to look like an Olympic final, but 5 minutes later those same guys will be helping each other to improve our product. Most people wouldn’t look to their workplace to provide this balance, but having seen it in action it’s amazing what it does for company culture and bringing people together. Employees can challenge each other in a healthy way, and then enjoy a beer during happy hour on Friday. These unique aspects of ThoughtSpot’s work environment are what have continued to stand out to me during my time here.
Vinod Khosla talks about “Silicon Valley becoming a state of mind more than just a place.” He goes on to explain that this mindset is about looking into the future to determine our next course of action. It’s this way of thinking, and the attitude that accompanies it, that truly sets Silicon Valley apart from any other work environment I’ve been in. I’m hopeful that places like Boulder can draw from this attitude as it nurtures its own startup culture.