Let's face it. As startups, we can't really offer top-dollar salaries to our employees. But we can offer some fun benefits that the big companies can't/won't. Here are a few that we have that seem to be pretty popular:
I was also thinking of buying one of those Arcade Legends machines and possibly a pool table. Not that we want to make it too fun, though...
So, what would you do? What fun benefits/perks do you have/give/love?
Our startup has an interesting concept, that works really for us. No formal vacation policy, no hard and fast rules on telecommuting or work hours. We ditched a traditional rule set, when we saw how well this system worked for another startup.
If you want time off, from a long lunch to a four week vacation, you work it out with your team of 2-4 people. If you want to telecommute, you just coordinate with your team to be sure the work gets done.
We've completely gone out of the business of managing bio-mass. Instead, we trust our people to strike a good balance between work and personal lives.
Surprisingly, I think people work harder under this system than in a traditional factory style 'Taylor' system.
From the point of view of the BoD this takes unpaid vacation off the books as a liability, so they are cool with it.
Many of your employees are parents. And whether you like it or not, their families come first.
That being said, as a parent, you never want to lose a job that gives you parental freedoms to:
1.2. Don't watch the clock when I go to lunch / have a set lunch period. I'm an adult, I know if I'm late back I need to work later (assuming my workload requires it).
Reproduced (with a few tweaks) from a blog post of mine that got me my current job!
(Since then I'd also add the 'own budget control' (which is via 37 Signals, Hanno. I saw it in a talk Jason Fried gave.) + 'buy lunch' - but they're both very dependent on funding - so not deal breakers)
I keep a list of those for when I eventually get to employ people at my current startup (soon, hopefully). Among the things not mentioned already is one of my favorites:
Self-managed budget / "Company pocket money": On your job, you're regularly going to want stuff like books, a new monitor, a USB-controlled nerf-rocket launcher, whatever. Get a company credit card for everybody and let them buy what they want. (I think I got that from 37signals)
I think this is great for various reasons:
I would reckon that mutual trust and general decency put a sufficient bound on the amount people spend, so it would not have to be bounded explicitly.
Some of the things the company I'm at is doing right:
On the subject of Fog Creek's "cultish" lunches, I felt the same way before I joined the aforementioned cult. What they don't tell you is that lunch serves the same purpose that all those standing meetings serve at other companies. At Google, my standing meetings took 7-15 hours a week. At Fog Creek, it's 0.
The #1 perk you can offer an employee is no meetings.
The best perks are the ones that take a hassle in my life and make it go away.
... and so on.
Find the biggest headache for your people and make it go away.
Give them the absolute best tools and environment to do their job even if it means overdoing it. The obvious example is for a software developer to get the 30" monitor, the fastest computer, etc.; but it can apply to other areas, e.g. Smartphones, whiteboards, chairs, etc. Not only will the employee appreciate the generosity, but it will probably make them more productive anyway. They'll also have an incentive to stick around since they know going somewhere else will likely mean a step backwards in terms of work environment.
Also, pay attention to the spouses/partners. They're just as affected by the long hours and lack of security so you can make everyone happier by giving them some perks, including having things done for them that are probably being neglected by the employee, e.g. Car washes, house cleaning, etc.
On the other hand, some people would just rather have the cash. Make sure you know which ones.
How about half-vacation or telecommuting time? You can make it as flexible or rigid as you want, but you basically say
Okay guys, you have your X days of vacation, but you also have Y days of work-out-of-the-office. We'd like you to put in a normal day, but you can do it from anywhere you like. Find a coworking place, put in your time, but feel free to do it from Madrid, Buenos Aires, or Miami.You can treat it like vacation, so people know in advance that someone won't be "in the office" and completely available, but you can expect them to still put in a near-full day.
Skip the booze - bad idea.
This may be starting to get a bit off topic, but I found this to be a great video on employee motivation: Ted Talk: Dan Pink on the surprising science of motivation Dan Pink talking about three key factors: Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose
I think he summarizes it quite well. Individuals want the flexibility in their work, they want to master it and know that it matters, and I'd add work with a great team.
In the vein on this specific question, I'd also add that many of the responses can be summarized as "don't sweat the small stuff" and "remove the roadblocks". Basically treat people well and let them do what they need to do to be productive and when you see anything that is impeding their progress get it out of their way. I think the specifics are going to vary according to the team you have and you have to work with them to understand what is going to be the most helpful in your situation.
I really enjoyed on a previous startup a visit from a chiropractor to the office, it was to check the working station, good posture and such, plus (this is the nice part) a massage.
Flexible time is always good.
"Ice cream bar" from time to time brings everyone together at the kitchen for an ad-hoc all hands.
I reckon the easiest one would be to create an environment where office feels like home. A real home. Forget about office chairs and desks. Just make your office like a house. Put a fridge (fill it in with foods too, if possible), a TV, a couch, a bed (just in case they get stressed and need to take a nap), or even a laundry machine (?). That actually can make people stay and work better at the office because they are feeling comfortable at the office. Make an office their second home.
Hmm... fun and low-cost?
Get a good coffee maker (a good french press is only $15) and buy really fresh beans. If you can find a supplier nearby, it's not that expensive.
A comfortable "chill" spot in your office. 3 or 4 comfy chairs and a view.
Set up a really good streaming media PC. Invite your employees to fill it up with their favorite music and let everyone listen to it over the network
Sign your company up for your state's pre-tax commuter program
Cater lunch most days. (This can be a really cost effective way to save on salary since you can possibly write it off. Even if you can't, it's worth a few grand in salary for each employee... so you call it a benefit/perk)
Foosball and ping-pong tables are cheap. Run a tournament.
A couch or two, for comfortable one-on-one discussions away from distractions (a computer monitor), and most importantly for power naps when necessary. I hate being sleepy, non-productive, and away from my home where I could just go to bed for 20 minutes. It really works. Two days ago, I had to lay on the ground for 20-30 minutes before a push to production at midnight. It felt awkward, but I had to do it.
Involve the families in corporate activities.
At some stage you are going to have to ask your employees to work stupid hours and spend time away from their family. If you invite spouses / partners and children to the corporate Christmas party and summer barbeque they will feel more involved and will feel that their sacrifices are appreciated, and if you are lucky you may even be able to enlist their help from time to time.
Make family members feel welcome to pop into the office. Startups require a lot of dedication and passion from their employees and if the employees' family is on-site this will help greatly.
One thing I've really enjoyed is using my own laptop for work. Whatever hardware I want. Whatever environment I want. None of this locked-down-nonadmin-access crap I've seen elsewhere. If I need a tool to get my job done, I can download and install it. If it's a paid tool, there's a company credit card available.
Getting an espresso machine was also a huge company hit. We saved a ton of time by not driving to Starbucks all the time (our office location required a drive). And it's a huge morale boost when the company CEO takes some time to make you a shot of espresso! This was a startup after all.
A great CEO (Bill Flagg) told me that the two big things he did for his company were (1) once a week, a stay-at-home mom/wife of an employee came in and cooked breakfast for the whole company. They paid her, so it was a nice bonus for her, but it was a great way for the company to enjoy the morning. (2) Once a year, all employees and their spouses went on a group trip to Mexico. That was after they were making a good amount of revenue.
In no particular order, here are some of my favorites. They vary in cost, and some may not be as feasible for startups, based on their size & budget
Giving them flexibility in their time is probably the most valued perk and will make the person glad they work for a small company.
Offer flexible work hours, and be upfront about it. Many people won't ask for flexibility even though they'd want it for fear of seeming lazy. Everybody needs unplanned time off: The young developer/student has a sudden exam, the middle-aged developer needs time for the newborn (so he may want to work part-time for a year. Make that possible, if you can), etc.
Work-from-home days can be nice, but they need a lot of trust from you and a lot of discipline on the part of the employee.
Our tools are also our favorite toys. Get your devs 24" LCDs, at least. Let them choose their own mouse and keyboard, at least. It's not expensive (heck, even a 30" or two 24" are much less than a month's wage), but it shows your appreciation, and it makes them happier and more productive.
Also, just show some appreciation the old-fashioned way and pat them on the back from time to time (or just tell them how much you appreciate their work).
Small gestures like cool business cards might also work.
Treat them to a nice restaurant every now and then.
Involve them in decisions, or at least inform them and let them give their opinion. Also involve them into the state of things: How sales are going, how you talked to somebody at Microsoft, and they're now using your product - and don't leave out the problems. Make your employees feel part of something they're interested in.
Buy your employees books about programming topics they're interested in (and that have a connection to what you're doing). I know I appreciate just being able to tell my boss "I want to learn about user interface design", and he just tells me to mail him a list of amazon links.
Lots of interesting concepts here.
I'm totally on-board with the move away from 'conventional' working hours (somebody mentioned "managing biomass" - excellent phrase!), instead focusing on what is actually important to a business....productivity!
I do feel that some of these ideas have a tendency to make a work environment resemble a crèche rather than a professional business. I guess tastes just vary. I don't have strong feelings against such things, but I wouldn't choose to instigate them myself.
I also sympathize with Alex's comment on Jason's post - about company lunches seeming "cultish". I think perhaps "cultish" is not quite the right word, but even though the intention is no doubt sincere (I'm sure the folks @ FogCreek are very nice), there is a definite 'tilt' in incentive with such a policy.
You may think it says something nice about you (and it does), but think about the implications it forces upon people. If I want to go out to lunch, do I now have to be concerned about what others might think of me? Will they think that I feel "too good to eat with them"? Perhaps I should go along with the team lunches to make sure they don't think badly of me.....but now I'm altering my behavior out of a sense of apprehension rather than good nature. Your nice lunch policy has succeeded in poisoning the atmosphere to some degree.
I'm sure they have a great team of good people there, but how many people at FogCreek do not choose to go out for lunch because of concerns over how that may be perceived?
Startups implicitly work on new projects, using new tools; for many people, this is a huge benefit, compared to "maintain a decade-old VB5 application". Just make sure your people know and appreciate the difference.
Having great people in your team motivates other great people to do the same, because it's more fun than working with morons.
The absence of micromanagement - get your job done, but don't have to report for every single minute what exactly was accomplished then - also attracts the right kind of people.
Foosball tables, dartboards etc. are cheap, but of course people must be allowed to use them whenever they feel like it. The worst thing you could do is have such stuff, but only allow using it from 12:00-12:30.
One nice "perk" that costs nothing would be a policy of true honesty from management.
For example, instead of telling developers that you are cramming developers into shared spaces "to foster collaboration". Tell the truth, i.e. "We can't afford to give everyone the office they deserve and we realize we will take a productivity hit because of it."
The one thing I would add is silly awards and traditions. These create an esprit de corps that transcends physical perks. We have a couple:
I completely and totally disagree that small companies offer more perks than large companies. Although I will concede that this may be the norm, however, it certainly is not like this with all "big companies."
I work for a fortune-5 company in the US. I come and go as I please, set my own work hours, can work from home whenever I like, I'm not micromanaged, and as long as I get my work done and produce, I generally work for myself in a sense.
I realize this is not the status-quo for all large companies, but you can find those jobs as rare as they may seem and it's just a false statement to say they "can't or won't" be out there.
Set some limits (maybe $$?), but let them tell you what they want. I don't find things being the same for everyone as equal, fair, etc. Maybe on a regular basis, everyone can pick from a list, a "Get out of Jail Free" card. Instead of getting to leave early on Friday, I may choose to have one extra vacation day. We often jump the gun and think people will take advantage of this and work the system, but that is because so many companies are not taking your approach by wanting to do something good for the employees. Don't offer me a cupcake and then stick your finger in the icing before handing it to me.
You asked for cheap, and the answer is surprising, at least to me: it may be that the most important hire is your least expensive hire. The best places I've worked had one employee that the less than the best did not: an outstanding HR person. This is probably the lowest paid professional in the entire startup or small company and yet it's the person who makes the technical folks most excited about work in general. Technical folks are often poor at planning group activities or seeing the utility of them. However, a single great HR hire pays massive dividends in employees' enthusiasm and the company's responsiveness. If given 20 great technical people and no "culture" person (say, just some random admin person) versus 19 technical folks and 1 great culture person, I'd choose the latter. I might gain the productivity equivalent of 2-5 more people in the process.
I realize that this isn't a standard "fringe benefit", but it's great to have coworkers who are having fun. The great "culture" person will put together events, such as birthday celebrations, movie outings, and more, plus keep the management considerate of employees who have personal issues to attend to, such as funerals, sick relatives, etc. For instance, when an employee has a death in the family, a considerate company will be sure that flowers are sent to the funeral. Trust me, an employee will never forget that consideration. So, treat your people well, and hire people that know how to do that.
Disclaimer: I'm not an HR person, I'm in the technical crowd.
On the lunch thing, you underestimate the pressure to attend on those who have other obligations or who have a life outside of work. And on the unmetered PTO thing, the pressure is likely to take small vacations, if at all - in my experience (observing from outside as I've not been in that environment yet), people rarely take as much PTO as they would in a situation in which it was accounted for - due to peer pressure or the fact that there just never, gosh darn it, seems to be a good enough time for 2 weeks off.
First, never assume that as startup, its ok not to offer market-rate salaries to our employees. If you go that way you will never recruit the team you need to succeed. Remember, execution is the key to success.
Second, just introduce perks based on what your team wants. You don't need to ask on internet about that.
I don't think there is more to be added, but I realized most of the ideas have not encountered personal basis. Such as: specifying an hour and half informal meeting every other week to share our personal daily experiences and life and family issues.
There could also be a variable, but not fixed quarterly bonus depending on the company's performance the previous quarter.