LET US START WITH A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT
What would the ideal company culture look like?
Employees should love their work. They should enjoy going to the office so much that formal business hours become obsolete and nobody watches the clock.
The workspace should be open, not cubicled, and workers should feel at home: beanbag chairs and Ping-Pong tables might outnumber file cabinets. Free massages, on-site sushi chefs, and maybe even yoga classes would sweeten the scene. Pets should be welcome, too: perhaps employees’ dogs and cats could come and join the office’s tankful of tropical fish as unofficial company mascots.
Silicon Valley has made famous some of the absurd perks, but none of the substance—and without substance, bonuses don’t work. You can’t accomplish anything meaningful by hiring an interior decorator to beautify your office, a “human resources” consultant to fix your policies, or a branding specialist to hone your buzzwords. “Company culture” doesn’t exist apart from the company itself: no company has a culture; every company is a culture. A startup is a team of people on a mission, and a good culture is just what that looks like on the inside.
The first team built has become known in Silicon Valley as the “PayPal Mafia” because so many of my former colleagues have gone on to help each other start and invest in successful tech companies. They sold PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002. Since then, Elon Musk has founded SpaceX and co-founded Tesla Motors; Reid Hoffman cofounded Linkedln; Steve Chen, Chad Hurley, and Jawed Karim together founded YouTube; Jeremy Stoppelman and Russel Simmons founded Yelp; David Sacks co-founded Yammer, and Peter Thiel co-founded Palantir.
Today all seven of those companies are worth more than $1 billion each. PayPal’s office amenities never got much press, but the team has done extraordinarily well, both together and individually: the culture was strong enough to transcend the original company.
You don’t assemble a mafia by sorting through résumés and simply hiring the most talented people. You had seen the mixed results of that approach firsthand when someone worked at a New York law firm. The lawyers working together ran a valuable business, and they are impressive individuals one by one. The relationships between them remain oddly thin. They spent all day together, but few of them seemed to have much to say to each Other outside the office.
Why work with a group of people who don’t even like each other? Many seem to think it’s a sacrifice necessary for making money. But taking a merely professional view of the workplace, in which free agents check-in and out on a transactional basis, is worse than cold: it’s not even rational. Since time is your most valuable asset, it’s odd to spend it working with people who don’t envision any long-term future together. If you can’t count long-lasting relationships among the fruits of your time at work, you haven’t invested your time well—even in purely financial terms.
From the start, Thiel wanted PayPal to be tightly knit instead of transactional. He thought stronger relationships would make them happier and better at work and more successful in their careers even beyond PayPal. So they set out to hire people who would enjoy working together. They had to be talented, but even more than that, they had to be excited about working specifically with them together. That was the start of the PayPal Mafia.
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