Dropcam CEO's Beef with Brogramming, Late Nights, and Free Dinners

Dropcam, a four-year-old startup in San Francisco, has never lost an employee. I’ll say that again so that you won’t think it’s a typo: no one who has taken a job at Dropcam has ever left.

It’s not that they’re being monitored everywhere they go. (The company makes Wi-Fi-enabled cameras for home video surveillance.) Rather, it’s that people just like to stay: Dropcam has hired 30 workers to date, and it’s never had to give a single going-away party. “I’m sure somebody will eventually need to move or leave for some other reason, but it hasn’t happened yet,” says co-founder and CEO Greg Duffy.

In a time of fierce competition for qualified engineers and salespeople, Silicon Valley executives spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about how to keep their best employees from jumping ship. How is it that Dropcam has escaped this problem?

It probably has something to do with the 26-year-old CEO’s views about the right way to build a company—which emphatically aren’t the views you’ll find at most startups around Silicon Valley. He thinks the lavish perks at many technology companies, especially the free on-campus meals, are a disguised form of mind control, designed to get employees to work 12- or 14-hour days.

That’s why there are no free dinners at Dropcam—around 6:00 pm the company shoos employees out the door to eat with their families. And here’s what else you won’t find at Dropcam: free services or products that trade on users’ attention or data to earn revenue; an engineering department full of young, single, childless males; and, according to Duffy, assholes of any description.

This corporate-culture discussion came up in the course of an interview about Dropcam’s home monitoring technology, which I wrote about in this April 5 column. Duffy’s views about work-life balance and keeping employees happy were so strong, and so contrary to the norm for Bay Area tech startups, that I wanted to save them for a separate piece.

Duffy is a bit of a wunderkind idealist. At age 13 he built a machine-learning program that won the Texas State Science Fair, which brought him a full scholarship to the University of Texas-Arlington. He interned at IBM and Microsoft, then started a VoIP-hardware company in Plano, TX, called NCF Technologies. As a principal software engineer at San Francisco e-mail startup Xobni, he created a search feature for Microsoft Outlook that the Wall Street Journal‘s Walt Mossberg called “much faster and better than Outlook’s own search.” Oh, and he flies helicopters on the side—real ones, not the remote-controlled kind.

Today Dropcam sells a $149 camera that people use mainly to watch their kids or pets when they’re away from home, and to catch the occasional burglar. The company has raised $18 million in venture funding from Accel Partners, Menlo Ventures, Bay Partners, and a flock of angel investors.

None of Duffy’s opinions about company-building are controversial in themselves. But in their totality they add up to a pretty strong indictment of Silicon Valley startup culture. So, without further ado, here’s the Dropcam playbook for 100 percent employee retention. These dictums are entirely in Duffy’s words, except for the headings, which are mine.

Make Stuff for Normal People 

“There are some common threads we try to weave through every Dropcam employee we hire. One is that we want people who understand that they are making a product for normal people, for their family and friends. So we often hire them because either they have their own kids, or they have kids in their extended families, or people who own homes, or people who live outside Silicon Valley.”

Don’t Hire Assholes

“Our number one hiring policy is our ‘no assholes‘ policy. I’ve found through my short time in the industry that there are lots of smart people in a place like Silicon Valley, and some of them are friendly, and some of the best people are not friendly and are not team players. Many companies hire them. We do not. We artificially restrict the number of people we can hire by hiring people that we think have good ethical fiber. And we think that goes to how we treat our customers.”

Make Something, Sell It For a Profit

“Our business model is very straightforward. I think if your business model is not straightforward, it veers into potentially being unethical, if you look at things that are quote-unquote ‘free.’ None of the people who work here want to work on something that works like that. They look at it as tricking the user, when [a company is] turning around and using some part of the user’s data to make revenue.

“I think part of our culture comes out of our business model. People are attracted to this idea of making a product and selling it to people for a profit. More and more, people are starting to think that other types of business models are bullshit.

“We style ourselves a little bit after companies like Apple. Over the past decade, they went from being something people laughed at to the top of the stock market by making physical products with software embedded in them. No startup was doing that [when Dropcam started out]. VCs were saying it’s too hard. Now even Microsoft makes hardware. So we think we are part of that resurgence. You can also look at companies like Fitbit and Nest. We know the folks who work there, and we all talk, because we feel like this is uncharted territory.”

Be Family-Friendly

“Probably one of the biggest things that separates us from other startups is that we actually are diverse. So, for instance, many startups in Silicon Valley, especially the ones I was familiar with, would only hire young, male programmers, people who didn’t have families and weren’t going to have kids in the next few years. We are coming up on our third Dropcam baby. These are kids born to their parents while they were working at Dropcam. We do maternity and paternity leave and all of the things that used to be … Next Page »

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

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22 responses to “Dropcam’s Beef with Brogramming, Late Nights, and Free Dinners”

  1. I would love to find a way to make those corporate ethics work for an independent game development studio.

  2. Wing Wong says:

    I like the work ethic the leadership is promoting and living by. Would be a welcome change if the whole of the silicon valley began to take up that mindset. Would most likely be alot less churn and more community building.

  3. A lot of big established companies could learn a lesson or two from this guy.

    The idea of doing more with less is right up there with supplying dinner. At some point you look at it as a developer and say this is not worth putting the ‘extra’ effort in.

    Recently I had a discussion with my boss about the next level (Lvl11) and the fact that it was expected to put in the extra time to be recommended for advancement. And if you just wanted to do the 8 hrs a day 40 hrs a week thing then it would be ok but it was implied that no advancement was possible… I told him he could keep his Lvl 11 and I was not really interested..

    When has it become the norm to expect developers to have to put in 50+ hours a week just to get ahead?

  4. yohocoma says:

    Wow, a CEO who is a decent human being.

  5. Rubinhood says:

    I immensely respect this kind of attitude. Hats off.

    Why has it taken me 2 decades in the industry to even *read* about this?

  6. David says:

    I’m impressed. Mr. Duffy seems classy and insightful – I hope that he and his firm do well.

  7. Jay Lee says:

    Rare breed. I wish there were more companies like this in the valley. These days I just ask certain questions to ascertain brogrammer culture, and if sensed, run from the place.

  8. Anon-e-moose says:

    I like how he singles out the “young, single, childless, males” and relates them to the “brogrammer” culture. As a young, single, childless, male who thinks “brogrammer” is about the stupidest word we’ve fabricated yet (“cougar,” I’ve got my eyes on you..), I find this guy a little obnoxious. The ideas and intent make sense, but sweeping generalizations aren’t going to get you much farther than the assholes you’re calling out in the first place.

    • gduffy says:

      That’s not my message. I’m actually singling out the companies who *only* hire out of that group and push a culture incompatible with other groups.

      We definitely hire young, single, childless males. In fact, I myself am 3 out of 4 of those things. However, many Silicon Valley companies engender an almost fraternity-like culture where you must stay up all night and fit in with “the boys” or else find another job. I think that’s bullshit, and frankly creates a market opportunity for me to hire people who like a more inclusive atmosphere.

      We hire people at Dropcam who are young and single, married and childless, married with young kids, and married with grown kids. We hire people at Dropcam of all different races, family styles, orientations, and creeds. Sometimes we all hang out together, for lunch or a drink (in which case, would you like beer, soda, water?). Can’t make it this time? No problem. People also go their separate ways to have dinner with their families or a concert with a friend.

      But at the end of the day, we all get along famously because we’re just a nice group of people who like building great stuff together. It’s a place where you are valued by how you contribute to the product, not by when your butt is in the seat or by what you choose to spend your time on in your personal life.

      And I love it!

      • Adam Lasnik says:

        I admire your dedication to doing right by your employees. I wish more CEOs would recognize the importance of work-life balance and create a culture in which this is valued and supported.

        With that said, your perception of onsite perks as reflecting or causing poor work/life balance saddens me, and I’ll respectfully suggest it’s very misguided.

        I’ve worked for big companies and startups, companies with extensive onsite perks (including free dinners) and almost zero perks, and I don’t believe there is any correlation between the existence of onsite perks and companies’ expectation of work hours. Looking at my friends’ employment situation further solidifies this for me: there are plenty of “no frills” companies that work their employees to the bone, and there are companies with extensive perks in which a huge percentage of employees do great work, put in reasonable hours, and have plenty of time to spend with friends, engage in hobbies, etc.

        Are there companies (or parts of companies) that have an obnoxious brogrammer culture and/or pressure employees to work long hours? And do many of them offer free dinners? Yes and yes. But as XKCD has taught us, be careful when drawing conclusions in the areas of correlation and causation ;).

        (And though it equally saddens and disappoints me, I can’t even think of where to start in critiquing your argument that ad-supported services are inherently unethical or misleading. In the meantime, though, I trust you won’t be watching any TED talks on YouTube or using an online maps service :-)

        • Ted Prindle says:

          Within the last 2 weeks I’ve bought and installed 2 dropcams. They work great & installation was quick and easy. My wifi signals (I use a base and a repeater) are good to excellent so no problem in connectivity. Great product.

  9. El Cheeshead says:

    How sad, that treating employees well is now a radical management strategy.

  10. Terry says:

    With a fast growing company of only 30 Employees so far the company is having growing pains. The cams are selling very fast. The support center is getting a overflow of calls. Most of the time it is problem with any type of WIFI equipment in a home. Older methods of home construction can kill WIFI such as lead paint or Medal lath used for plaster in the past kills the signal. I am sure he will do well and the staff around him will support him on his path to be the leader in home security for cams.

  11. Joel Bondurant says:

    What a douche. The implication that all single guys are assholes is the sure sign of an asshole.

    • FredInIT says:

      What he’s saying is that he does not want just single white males doing development. Nor does he want assholes – SWM or otherwise. No where does he imply that SWMs are assholes nor assholes are SWMs.

      As you are complaining about this – sounds like you are both – an SWM as well as an asshole. You need not apply.

  12. Glad you did a deep dive on this Wade. Confirmed some of my own biases that I can’t say in public. Well I guess I just did. :)

  13. ryan skach says:

    I hope Duffy’s style of common sense employee nourishment becomes the trend in Silicon Valley as well as other areas that disguise mandatory 12 hour work days with “company perks.”

  14. Wade Roush says:

    I just want to thank everyone for their thoughtful and (mostly) civil comments here. I’m glad Greg Duffy weighed in personally, and I thought the reply to Greg from Adam Lasnik at Google was really trenchant. This piece clearly touched a nerve and I’m sure this is a discussion that tech entrepreneurs, managers, and employees will need to keep having for years to come.

  15. pjordan says:

    Duffy would fit right in, here in Northern Indiana. We have a host of business leaders who are located here, creating a surging tech-base. We are looking for an ethical and diverse workforce who maintain strong family values and who care about whom they server and what they produce.

  16. kyron says:

    two funny things about this article in hindsight. 1) Duffy sold out to google, the poster boys for creepy, “free” services that aren’t sold for a profit and lead themselves to unethical practices. 2) it wasn’t for a billion dollars and won’t create the sort of dynasty he advocated for. but it will make its founders pretty rich.

  17. Adam Taylor says:

    Sound cultural mgmt principles for sure – but only if they’re blended with the right amount of process, measurement and accountability. There will always be pressure & stress in any company (particularly at a start-up)… but if you can build an environment like Dropcam’s… you can more easily manage through those stresses. Good job guy’s.