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Warby Parker’s Startup Culture Sounds Borderline Hellish

Image: Getty

Warby Parker CEO / Image: Getty

Reading Dave Eggers' new novel The Circle makes me realize that one of the downsides to living in New York is missing out on so much of the Orwellian utopianism that seems to add color to life in Silicon Valley. And that's one of the reasons I feel especially drawn to yesterday's New York Times interview with the co-CEO of Warby Parker — the sheer novelty of seeing so many Bay Area clichés come out of the mouth of a hometown boy. 

Let's look at a few of them:

"[The other founders and I] promised each other that we were going to really work hard, and that we would remain friends throughout the process, regardless of what happened. So every month, we would return to that bar where we had the original idea, and we would have a 360 review of each other. We’d put somebody in the hot seat and say: “Hey, you’re doing this well, but this could be improved. And when you shoot me a 10-page e-mail at 2 in the morning, I want to punch you in the face.” That set the tone for the culture at Warby Parker, which would really be rooted in open and honest feedback."

This might sound cute and healthy in theory, but imagine if it were actually your life. Imagine having to meet up with your friends (who are also your business partners) on a monthly basis to discuss various times you recently felt like punching each other in the face. The idea of an organizational structure rooted in radically open communication was borrowed from the intentional communities of the 70s. Want to know why so many utopian hippie communes failed? People felt stifled — and saw their relationships destroyed — by this kind of tyrannical honesty. (For more on how these dynamics played out in free love communes, you could read Thy Neighbor's Wife by Gay Talese.) Now imagine trying to impose hippie faux-openness on the modern-day start-up, with its complicated internal politics, preoccupation with image and excellence, drive to relentlessly acquire wealth … does a monthly rap session with your tech bros still sound cute?

"We also have new team members come up and introduce themselves and share a fun fact about themselves. It’s usually something humiliating, and the reason is to make that individual memorable to the rest of the team and also to make that individual vulnerable. It’s through vulnerability that human beings create connections. The more vulnerable we can be with one another, the more that we’ll trust one another and the more we’ll be able to collaborate effectively."

Making a case for ritualistic hazing, niiice. 

"And every week we ask everyone to tell their happiness rating on a scale of zero to 10, and the one or two reasons for that. So in an ideal world, managers know exactly what’s going on with their direct reports. But we all know that utopia doesn’t exist, so this really forces a conversation to happen. People might look at that zero-to-10 scale very differently, but at least we can look at trends."

Every week! A happiness rating! This happens to be a very clever way to whiff out and squash any disaffection in the ranks, and all under the guise of caring about your employees. 

"We think a lot about being a disruptive company. The question is, How do you remain a disruptive company?"

Give me a break. (Get it?)

"On the personality and fit side, we try to assess whether somebody’s personal values align with our core values. One of our core values is to inject fun and quirkiness into everything we do. So we’ll often ask, 'What was a recent costume you wore?' And the point isn’t that if you haven’t worn a costume in the last four weeks, you’re not getting hired. It’s more to judge the reaction to that question. Are you somebody who takes yourself very seriously? If so, that’s a warning sign to us. We want people to take their work seriously but not themselves. We also ask, 'What do you like to do for fun?' The answer always speaks volumes of who that person is."

Have fun OR ELSE. 

Warby Parker and a Culture of Communication — NYTimes