Quirks & Perqs: YC Startups Woo Employees with Unusual Benefits

It’s old news that tech startups in San Francisco and Silicon Valley are locked in a fierce competition for the most talented engineers, product managers, and business development staff. But you might be surprised how far some companies are going these days to portray their workplaces as virtual Disneylands for employees.

At a Tuesday night event organized by Y Combinator, the Mountain View, CA-based startup incubator, founders from 14 YC–backed startups with open positions described their businesses, their company cultures, and their hiring needs to a standing-room-only crowd of job seekers. Naturally, the founders emphasized to the (overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly 20-something) audience how their businesses are booming and how newly hired engineers get to tackle hard problems from day one. But many also went out of their way to mention the oddities, idiosyncrasies, and special benefits that make their companies oh-so-cool to work for.

Here’s the skinny on some of the more unusual perqs and procedures at eight of the companies, most of which are based in San Francisco. (If you’re looking for a startup job but you missed the Y Combinator event, I advise you to find a friend who was there and get them to fill you in about Paul Graham’s talk, which was riveting but off the record.)

Weebly, which offers online tools for building websites, has a secret room in its office, behind a movable bookcase. If you get hired there, they’ll show you which book to pull to activate the bookcase. The office also has a bricked-over entrance to a network of secret tunnels used by rum-runners during Prohibition. In addition to these architectural distinctions, Weebly has an unlimited vacation policy, and every employee gets a set of noise-canceling Bose headphones.

Hipmunk, which is developing new interfaces for flight and hotel searches in an effort to outdo incumbents like Kayak and Expedia, handles its entire employee screening process via e-mail and other electronic means. “I don’t know how to fire someone that I like, and if I meet you I’ll probably like you,” said co-founder Steve Huffman. “So I don’t like to meet people unless I think we are going to hire them.”

Optimizely, which is building easy-to-use tools for automated A/B testing of websites, says it is now processing 15 billion page requests per month, but has only five engineers. “If you join us tomorrow you will literally be responsible for one-sixth of those 15 billion requests,” said co-founder Pete Koomen. Presumably, this was meant as an enticement rather than a warning.

Parse, which has built a cloud platform for mobile applications (it’s similar to Heroku for Web applications), offers employees catered lunch and dinner every day and a choice of computer hardware, according to co-founder Tikhon Barnstam.

At Mixpanel, which offers an analytics platform for developers of Web and mobile applications, the entire company is currently engaged in a mustache-growing contest. (They’re all dudes, so it works out.) “Mine is very faint,” says founder Suhail Doshi. “We have a culture of goofiness—we’re eccentric, weird, and fun.”

At Exec, the on-demand job site led by Justin.tv founder Justin Kan, all new employees get a green dinosaur hoodie. (Kan models the hoodie, above right, in a still from a video posted to Socialcam). There’s also a treadmill desk for employees who want to work out while they work.

Carwoo, which matches car buyers with local dealerships, has a DJ booth in its office, which becomes the nerve center for a quarterly office rave.

Airbnb, the fast-growing site for people who want to rent out their extra bedroom (or cabin, or couch), gives each employee $500 per quarter to spend on Airbnb rentals. The company also offers yoga classes, field trips, and a dog-friendly workplace. And there are periodic “Hackairthons” when employees stay up all night working on new features. Which sounds a lot like a typical shift for many of these startups.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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2 responses to “Quirks & Perqs: YC Startups Woo Employees with Unusual Benefits”

  1. Jeffmcmasters says:

    I don’t think brogrammer means what you think it means. 

    • Wade Roush says:

      I really just meant “male programmers” but I think you’re right, there are enough other connotations to “brogrammer” that it was probably a poor choice of words. I have officially changed it to “dudes.”