Startups, burnout, and the path to happy employees

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A sprout in a forest

Leah Silber is CEO and co-founder of Tilde, a training and consulting startup with a focus on open source led by alumni and current leaders of projects like Ruby on Rails, jQuery, and Ember. Tilde is also the company behind Skylight, a Rails performance tool.

Leah told me that Tilde contributes back by building and maintaining the vibrant open source communities they love. To do that takes a lot of time and effort, so how does she maintain? How does anyone in open source get it all done without burnout? Leah explains in this interview.

Find out more in her upcoming All Things Open talk: Designing the startup you always wanted to work for.

Have you ever burned out? What led to that?

I've worked at a couple different startups, and there were definitely times where I had to take a step back and slow down; to adjust my pace before it got too exhausting. That said, I've avoided the "I need to lie on a beach and do nothing for three months" sort of burnout that a lot of startup employees and founders talk about. 

It's not that I don't work hard enough, it's more than I'm a meticulous advanced planner, and being that way means you can spot the points of chaos before they happen and try to mitigate. It doesn't sound nearly as sexy, I know, but it's practical. 

FOMO (fear of missing out) is a real thing that affects real people and causes lots of folks to go-go-go so hard they burn out. Like most similar things though, if you make an effort to be introspective, to realize what's happening a while or before it happens, you can often internalize that it's just that: a fear, but not a reality. Unless you're truly at a precipice (in which case, it's likely too late anyway) most things aren't going to cause your company catastrophic failure if you take off a weekend or go to your kid's school play.

Building a company is a long game. You need to focus on the long-term health of the company, and your personal long term health (physical, mental, and otherwise) is part of that. It's often much smarter to move a bit slower, so you can keep sane for longer.

Is anyone immune to burnout?

No, not really. Some people are more susceptible to feeling burned out than others, and the why of that can be related to many different factors.

What is practical transparency? How is it different than just giving people access to documents?

This one's a long answer. It's a topic I'm passionate about, a big section of my talk, and to be honest probably merits me publishing a full blog post on the topic. (I hope to do that post-All Things Open!)

Achieving transparency is a lofty goal that a lot of people like to put on their wishlists, but it's one that most have no idea how to actually make happen. Emotionally, a lot of founders feels like if they just emote openness and talk about some of their big decisions with the group, then they've achieved transparency. But that's not nearly enough.

One of the main ways you can run a truly transparent operation is to have transparent salaries. Compensation is usually this huge secret; one that makes us all prone to accidentally negotiating wildly unequal salaries and benefits in order to get the employees we really want.

The problem is twofold. First of all, it's just unfair! Second, when employees learn that someone else is making more than they are, they feel ripped off. It's easy to tell yourself that you won't let this happen, but as an alternative, I recommend setting it up so you're a lot less likely to make the mistake in the first place.

When I first heard about this idea, it sounded crazy because of how ingrained the secrecy of salaries is in the workplace. But the truth is that transparent salaries have a whole bunch of benefits, and the drawbacks never really seem to materialize in the dramatic fashion that you expect.

First, transparent salaries mean that when you're trying to hire someone aggressively, you aren't tempted to give them a windfall offer just to get them on board. Restraint is key: in the heat of the moment, it might be tempting to get into a bidding war, but that isn't fair to the rest of your employees, and likely isn't the right move for you anyway.

This doesn't mean that you can never move on salaries when hiring someone. Especially early on, when you're small, every new employee is an opportunity to realize that your salary calibration isn't competitive with the market. If a new employee pushes back, you might want to give them more money, but you also need to raise the salaries of other employees. Otherwise, early employees will perversely get paid less, as a group, than later employees. And yes, I've absolutely seen exactly this happen at multiple jobs.

You are effectively unionizing your team, which is a good thing.

It might seem like this would make it harder to negotiate, but in my experience it makes it easier for both sides of the table. Negotiating salaries is a major stress point for potential hires, and just the unpleasantness of the negotiation can often sour an otherwise great start. If someone doesn't feel like they're a strong negotiator, it's easy for them to feel like they're getting screwed over.

Second, it means that your employees can easily talk to each other about professional goals and compensation. If it turns out your salaries are mis-calibrated and not competitive with the market, you want to hear about it from your employees, and not because a high-value contributor has already decided to leave to make more money somewhere else. 

Third, if how much you pay people isn't a secret, then nothing needs to be a secret. Even companies trying to be open will usually feel compelled to obscure the details of salaries. So maybe they share a P&L, but they have to redact the salaries, the perks, and probably a couple of other things just to prevent you from doing the math and figuring out what those other numbers are.

If nothing's a secret, then everyone knows what's up with the company in one of the most important ways: the finances. Everyone can understand the big picture impact of the decisions they ask you to make. Assuming you're making the right decisions, it means a lot less questioning and needing to obscurely justify hard financial choices. The bottom line is right there and everyone can see it. 

Lastly, no one's left grumbling about how you, a founder, are probably making outrageous amounts of money off their hard work. Because they can look up exactly how much you're making. Possibly most importantly, it'll stop you from actually taking an outrageously high salary. It's amazing how many decisions are made more ethically and soundly when you have to make them with other people watching.

There are numerous other ways that a company can be transparent. For sure putting various documents in a team-accessible location is half the battle, but the other part is making sure people know it's there and go poking around once in a while. Culturally, you want to foster an environment where no topic is off-limits, and the founders seem eager and excited to talk to people about the guts of the business. In truth, most people won't be interested in most of the implementation details, but just watching those who are be able to meaningfully engage and learn about everything can shift the entire culture of a company to one that's more open and involved.

I could go on about this topic for a while; there are so many areas to cover! Overall though, if transparency is a goal, it should be on the mind of the founders early and often. When considering making any major decision, ponder what questions your team will have about it, what alternate outcomes they might have expected, and if there's any opportunity to get feedback from them before your decision is final. In a lot of cases when people want transparency, they more than anything mean that they want to have been consulted, even if they wouldn't necessarily have advocated for a different outcome.

What are three words that describe the path to a happy employee?

I can't give you three words, but I can talk about happiness. :)

When you read stories about hot and sexy startups, you'll mostly read about perks. About catered lunches, free Kindles, unlimited corporate cards, and so on. A lot of these things are super cool, but while they generate momentary satisfaction, I wouldn't say that they make people sustainably happier.

I prefer to think about how I can help my employees grow, both at the company and beyond. I think a lot about how effective my employees will be at finding their next job, when they eventually leave the company. 

It might feel counter-intuitive, because I'm not the beneficiary of any success they have at their next job, but that's irrelevant. People are happiest when they feel like they're growing. So if you can find ways to help people grow, and especially if they're also conscious of your efforts, if they know it's important to you, you've got a win-win proposition. They're going to be more productive and effective, and they'll be happier as a result.

Happiness is also about making employees feel like they have a stake in, and a hand in, the company's success. The worst jobs aren't necessarily the ones that pay the least or have the worst perks, but rather ones where you feel like a cog in a machine. Where you can think of a dozen ways to make the company more successful and effective, but nobody's listening.

This isn't just about giving people an opportunity and responsibility to report problems, but also about giving employees a share of the company's success. At Tilde, we give out sizable bonuses when the company has had a good year, and they're distributed evenly based on salaries. So instead of taking cash-positive moments as an opportunity for founders to cash out, we take the opportunity to give employees a sense of ownership and stake in the company's successes and failures.

You might be thinking that we should do this by handing out stock options, but I've never really felt like that actually accomplished this goal. 90% of employees aren't getting enough options for it to feel like an ownership stake to begin with, but also, options are more about inequality with founders while bonuses can be about fairness. Options tell your employees: "I'm going to be a multi-millionaire, and hey! You might get a hundred grand!" Whereas annual bonuses can be more like" "Hey look! we both get 20% of our salary in cash, right now!"

All Things Open
Speaker Interview

This article is part of the All Things Open Speaker Interview series. All Things Open is a conference exploring open source, open tech, and the open web in the enterprise.

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Jen leads a team of community managers for the Digital Communities team at Red Hat. She lives in Raleigh with her husband and daughters, June and Jewel.


I enjoyed reading this and I'm looking forward to hearing her at All Things Open.

Great post. You might consider submitting it to CompensationCafe or World at Work as a guest post.

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