Goodbye, pizza and beer. Hello, personal growth. Why feeding your employees won’t make them stay.

I love the startup ecosystem, and I’m proud to be part of it. But there are definitely a few parts of it that I resent. When I founded Oribi, it was important for me to not only identify those parts, but also, more importantly, to figure out what I was going to do about it.

The first thing I decided to change is the superficial and “cheap” ways in which companies buy their employees: pizza, beer, a stocked refrigerator, ice cream, fancy parties, massages. I feel that all of that is a legacy companies carry from 15 years ago, without really knowing why.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve interviewed over 300 candidates for different positions. Developers, marketers, designers, product managers. I’ve heard from 300 different people on why they decided to move on, to take a bold step and seek out their next challenge. What I’ve found is that it’s almost always about personal and professional development. About not getting stuck.

In those 300 job interviews, not a single candidate talked about food, parties or the PlayStation room. They talked about the things that made a mark—what they learned, challenges they overcame and changes they made. Times have changed: people want to eat healthier (and less), staying at the office until 10pm playing Fifa isn’t cool anymore, and it doesn’t take a genius to understand that a developer who makes $100K a year doesn’t need free beer. Yet, startups continue to boast about these outdated benefits.  

Great products offer “magic moments,” moments that simultaneously teach you something new about your business and wow you. In trying to find real alternatives for free pizza, I began to search for the magic moments in life and at work. I ultimately decided to focus on the magic moment that takes place when you step out of your comfort zoneand succeed. Nothing beats the feeling you get when you accomplish something new, something you thought you’d never be able to do, let alone be good at.

So I took the pizza, beer, and party budget and channeled into our “personal growth” project. This is an individual, 3-to-6-month-long plan tailored to each employee. Each person chooses a topic to focus on and is paired with a mentor in that field to help him or her get there.

Their only rule for picking a topic is: It must be outside your comfort zone.

The focus here isn’t just on learning—something smart and talented people are already used to in their jobs—but on going beyond your comfort zone.  That’s where the magic moment lies.

For their personal growth project, Oribi team members can focus on something they fear, like public speaking or sales; something they’ve never thought they’d be involved in, like design or marketing; or simply something they’ve always felt they’re not good at. Personal growth isn’t cute and fuzzy—it’s about facing fears and really growing. “I’ve never…” is always a good start.

It must be measurable.

Posts like this one tend to describe well-structured paradigms, even almost provide a “recipe”. I’ll be the first to admit that there are still lots of undefined areas in our personal growth project. This is one of them. Like everything else we do, we must be able to measure it. Some plans are easier to measure than others. For example, our marketing manager decided to learn design. We set monthly milestones, from designing a banner to designing parts of the website, and measured his process. Other plans—for example, getting over a fear of money—are almost impossible to measure. Measuring the process is challenging, but we do our best.

The mentor can’t be someone from within the company.

It may sound counterintuitive, but it was pretty clear to me that the personal growth plan wouldn’t work if we had people from within the company serving as mentors to each other. The main reason is the “personal trainer” theory: you may skip the gym, but if you’ve scheduled a workout with a personal trainer, the chances you’ll cancel are much smaller. At a startup, there’s always something more urgent than personal growth, and if people from within the company were mentors, they would end up prioritizing their day-to-day tasks over mentoring their peers. Having outside mentors sets the stage for accountability and success. That’s why we didn’t get our designer to teach our marketing manager design but rather had him work with someone outside the company.

Our biggest challenge: Most people don’t know what they’d like to do.

This part definitely caught me by surprise. I’m a dreamer. Big time. I’m constantly thinking about what I want to learn next.  I found that there are lots of other dreamers, who have a hard time verbalizing their dreams. While most employees were very excited about the personal growth project, they didn’t know what to focus on. It took us a while to understand that one of the main parts of the program is helping people identify something they really want to work on. The only thing that prevented us from moving forward with some of the plans was the realization that they weren’t the right fit.

Personal growth examples

As I mentioned before, there are no strict guidelines other than stepping out of the comfort zone. Here are some of the plans our employees successfully tackled over the past year:

Public speaking. Getting people with stage fright to first speak in front of the company and then give talks at meetups.

Design and UX. Giving the knowledge and tools to people who consider themselves “not artistic” has done wonders. Enabling our employees to express themselves in a visual way and having them not just suggest ideas, but actually draft them was a huge step for everyone.

Creative writing. This ranges from writing posts for our blog, to attending a creative writing course and composing short stories.

Coaching. Tackling topics ranging from improving teamwork to improving self-confidence.

Finance (or how to stop being afraid of money). This is a big one and is especially relevant to developers. Personal growth in finance ranges from overcoming the psychological fear of dealing with money to education about types of investments and handling your budget better.

Guitar lessons. This was a surprise for us. One employee told us that he had never played any sort of instrument and that it had always seemed impossible to him. His was one of the most successful personal growth plans and was a true example of stepping outside the comfort zone.

Personal branding. I find this option one of the most important personal growth plans. Most people around me are super talented and do great and creative work. Despite that, most of them hardly communicate it, whether within the company or outside it.

Meditation for non-spiritual people. Sitting on the floor and repeating “Ommm” is definitely not a natural thing for most tech-minded people. I personally love it, but most developers think of it as a “tree huggers” thing. I see this as a huge step for stepping outside your comfort zone—it’s about connecting to yourself as well as opening up to different cultures and doing things that differ from your own identity.

But what’s in it for you?

I’ve been asked this question quite a lot. How does giving your employees guitar lessons improve your company?

There are two ways of looking at it.

The first is the “cold,” economic one. People love pizza, and getting one for free is always fun. But it’s not competitive anymore. These days, every company offers free food. And let’s face it, your employees are smart and well paid—if they want fancy food or parties and games, they’ll pay for it themselves.  Our personal growth program offers something different and unique to our employees. Every company says it cares about the development of its employees. Our personal growth plan lets us put our money where our mouth is.

Besides the “economic” reason, there’s another, more important, goal behind this plan: to build a strong culture. After working with lots of startups at different stages and seeing which failed and which grew, I’m pretty positive that a good culture is a strong one. A good culture is not about principles but about being tight and solid, and it always comes from the top down. For me, the best thing about my career and building three startups has been that I’ve had to step outside my comfort zone, again and again. I’ve been challenged to grow and overcome my fears. And I’m passionate about doing the same for my employees.

Conclusions after one year

We started the personal growth program about a year ago.  Though far from being perfect, it has definitely created its fair share of magic moments. Running a marathon,  bungee-jumping or skydiving gives people the confidence and sense that they can expand their boundaries and do more than they thought. Creating this feeling on the professional level is especially powerful. I remember the boost I felt after I gave my first large talk. Over the past year, we’ve seen our employees learn to speak up for themselves, to be less dependent on other people within the team and to overcome fears. One of my main goals when managing people is to have them continually grow—and not because they’re eating tons of free pizza.