An entrepreneur asked me to answer the following question on Quora:
“I’m a 21-year-old CEO of a startup with eight guys. My developers sometimes spend all day at the ping pong table. How do I handle this? I’m also a tech guy, I never wanted to be the CEO, but my co-founders and our investors (friends and family) think I should try to be the CEO for at least six months before trying to bring someone in. I think I’m doing a pretty good job in several aspects (we will probably break even next month), but I don’t know how to handle situations like this one with the ping pong table.”
I’ve been a 20-something CEO, a 30-something CEO and most recently a 40-something CEO. I feel your pain. I’ve tried running startups with a ping pong table, without a ping pong table, with an xbox, without an xbox, with a foosball table, without a foosball table, with a bar/kegerator, without a bar/kegerator – you get the idea. My advice is to stop worrying about the ping pong table. Let it go.
You suggest that your team is actually executing fairly well – achieving breakeven next month. Congratulations. The real question you should be struggling with is whether or not your team is actually executing in the top 10% of startups. Conventional wisdom suggests that 90% of startups fail so you better make sure yours is in the top 10%. If your team is executing, keep doing whatever you’re doing – let them play ping pong whenever they want. If they aren’t executing I can guarantee that the ping pong table isn’t the real issue. The real issue is likely far more complicated and harder to fix. Most developers who choose to work for startups (as opposed to established companies like Google or Facebook) are there to build something great. They’ve bought into the ‘make a dent in the universe’ thinking made so famous by Steve Jobs. If your team is failing to execute, deciding instead to play ping pong all day I bet they don’t feel like they are making a dent.
Your job as CEO is to inspire your team, to motivate them, to convince them that what they are doing is important. Telling them to stop playing ping pong will likely just piss them off and make it more difficult for you to lead them.
I’ve had some developers who screwed around everyday at the office, but managed to meet their deadlines and obligations. I guess they liked to code in the darkness of their apartment at night. It bugged the crap out of me, but eventually I realized that if someone is executing, I really needed to chill out and buy more ping pong balls. You’re not running a factory. You’re dealing with highly intelligent information workers that have unlimited options for employment. Accept that fact and be the best possible leader you can be.
If you’ve got a startup related question feel free to ask me on Quora. I am quite active on the site. Here is my Quora profile.