Working Yourself to Death at Your Startup

Amazon got a bit of a kick in the teeth this week from the NY Times. A well-researched article painstakingly detailed the exciting/deadly working conditions at the company that wants to deliver everything to everyone all the time. Who doesn’t have a love/hate relationship with Amazon? I know I do. Love the access to books and other stuff I want. Love creator-centered platforms like Kindle. Love the company culture that pushes to the edges of innovation. Hate the hubris. Hate the idea that it’s okay to work employees in 100-degree heat with an ambulance outside to cart them away when they drop. (True story.)

All company culture is top-down. Amazon is an expression of the brilliant/crazy mind of Jeff Bezos, who believes in tracking everything, intense competition, and the positives of a negative work environment. Zappos is an expression of the brilliant/quirky mind of Tony Hsieh, who is trying to remove the hierarchy in his corporate structure. (It’s not going so well.)

People like Bezos and Hsieh are like you: intensely focused on a world-changing idea, drinking their own Kool-Aid and trying to get everyone else to drink it, too, and believing that what they’re working on is the most important thing there ever was. Even if we are talking about shoes (Zappos) and delivering cat toys faster (Amazon).

The attention on Amazon spotlighted a new management attitude to the workforce: Expect attrition. Push people hard, let those who crash and burn slink away, work with the survivors. The NY Times reported that most Amazon employees don’t last more than a few years before they have to quit. That’s just fine with Amazon management.

It works for Amazon, sort of, because Jeff Bezos is a good hypnotist. Steve Jobs was a good hypnotist. His employees used to refer to the ‘reality distortion field’ he often deployed to get people to do what he wanted them to do.

What about you? You might be a great hypnotist, but eventually somebody is going to rip away the curtain and screw up your vaudeville act, somebody like the NY Times, or somebody like Walter Isaacson, Jobs’ biographer. Then you’d have what we call ‘a situation’ on your hands and some crisis management to manage.

It’s all about the culture you’re building. Culture is not built in secret. It’s what you use to get customers, of course, but it’s also what you use to recruit the best people to work for you.