Austin in San Francisco

When people can devise their own lifestyle, career, and mobility more than at any other time in history, it’s interesting to ask how a startup can support and encourage its employees beyond a paycheck.

When job-hopping is a badge of honor instead of a scar of disloyalty, it’s interesting to ask how a company can retain talent over significant stretches of time.

WHen “friend” means one of 852 on Facebook, it’s interesting to ask what a friend really is.

John Price (CEO Vast) mused on this last one: “A true friend is someone I can telephone at 2am, out of the blue, ask them to bring $20,000, no questions asked…. and they do.”

I vividly recall the moment when I connected on this level with Austin Gunter — our social media keymaster (are you the gatekeeper?), the most online-visible person at WP Engine. I was about to give a night-time talk about making websites fast at a local Austin PHP users group; did anyone at the office want to come? I’ll buy dinner after? Bueller?

They didn’t. But I looked at Austin, and he gave a smirk and nodded. “Yeah, I’m in. I’ll film it too.”

It was during “Final Four Week,” which I didn’t know because I don’t follow basketball. But Austin knew, and had plans to hit a sports bar with friends that evening. But he silently delayed that to see me wax on network latency and reading performance-analysis reports.

It was recorded too.  (See it here if you’re into such things.)  (Does anyone not hate what they look like / sound like on camera?)

To me, that is what a friend is. That’s my equivalent of the $20k at 2am. Supporting your peeps because you know it sucks to do stuff like that alone.

So when Austin said he wanted to move to San Francisco from eponymous Austin (Texas), supporting his move was a no-brainer.

But wait, doesn’t that mean a pay raise to cover cost-of-living? Yes. But wait, isn’t that an HR no-no? Who cares. But wait, what if Austin finds a hot new startup in San Francisco and bails on us?

Well, devotion works both ways.

We always talk about the benefits of startups in terms of “having no boss” and the thrills of the roller-coaster and failing fast and building something that never existed. Not to mention the potential to make more money than we could ever spend.

But that prose is aimed at the founders, not employee #8. That is what the company can do for itself and its founders, not what the company can do for its employees. 

We dwell on how startups enable founders to quit their day job and master their own destiny. But what about everyone else? They quit their day jobs too, perhaps more secure, perhaps with better benefits, perhaps with more family time, perhaps with less stress, perhaps with fewer hours. And yes, employees are getting the checks instead of writing the checks, and that does make all the difference, but still. What about what they can control, how they want to grow and learn, how their personal goals might be fulfilled?

Step one is to create an environment where the culture and comfort and excitement is better than 99.9% of any other job. Good, but you’re not done.

A startup must be an enabler, otherwise you’re just building another big company, exactly like the one you as a founder refused to devote your life to. In 2013, in the tech world, with our opportunities and capabilities, we must do more than just build another big company.

I just got an email from our VP Marketing about an interesting conversation she had with Austin and, now that they’re both in San Francisco, that’s happening all the time. Austin was quick to point out the various benefits of our “social media and community guy” being in the bay area and in close proximity to several of our other team members not to mention the heart of WordPress and a nerve-center of designers and marketing agencies.

I suppose I could “justify” the cost of living salary increase using these incidents as “business cases,” but why should I rationalize? Besides, as a founder I don’t have to justify anything to anyone, right? Isn’t that one of the joys of being a founder in the first place?

The truth is it really is a net positive for the business and for Austin both, because Austin is a critical part of our team, and if he’s happy, the benefits accrue to us as well. And if a startup can’t support that, what’s the point?

So welcome to San Francisco, Austin. We love you. Let’s do this.

Don’t be a stranger.

  • http://twitter.com/chrislema Chris Lema

    Well said and perfectly true. Too many founders just end up creating a smaller version of the company they wanted to leave. When you do this kind of stuff – you’re making more than your own dream a reality, you’re helping others experience theirs. Great work!

  • http://www.leanlearnin.com/ Brent Weber

    Austin is a great friend and all-around guy! So awesome to see you and WP-Engine actually showing your employees that they are the biggest asset!

  • http://austingunter.com/ Austin Gunter

    Thanks Jason. The opportunity to be part of WP Engine has meant as much to me personally as it possibly could. And since I never draw bold lines between my “personal” and “professional” lives, it’s all living to me, working with you and the team has been equally as important to me professionally. I’ve been able to do the thing that’s most important to my life: create my own opportunities, and work with people who “get it.”

    This paragraph you wrote sums up my experience at WP Engine:

    “A startup must be an enabler, otherwise you’re just building another big company, exactly like the one you as a founder refused to devote your life to. In 2013, in the tech world, with our opportunities and capabilities,we must do more than just build another big company.”

    I’ve been 100% enabled by WP Engine since out of the blue, I handed you a job description and hounded you until you signed it. And by enabling me to create something of my own since that day, and letting me figure out how to align it with the company, you’ve also enabled me to not hold a single thing back from my work.

    I got to be all in with you.

    It hasn’t always been pretty, but the trust I’ve experienced has made me feel free to pour myself into my work for the first time in my life.

    The culture of WP Engine has allowed me to work as much as I have, because I’ve had autonomy and a say in the decisions that we make. I’ve never never had my boss “pull rank” simply because they were “an executive,” and their opinion was ultimately the “most important.”

    Knowing that I was enabled to produce as much as I could imagine has freed not only me, but the entire organization (now more than 40 strong) to work with a creativity an dedication that I’ve never seen before. I’ve never seen it before, but I love it dearly.

    I’m sure that it’s scary to let go of control and trust your employees this much, but I think it’s the best way to maximize the contribution of people like me who ultimately will become startup founders in the future. By freeing us up, you’ve enabled us to produce 100x more value for the organization than if you tried to control us.

    Working here, I’ve been humbled to learn by example, how to lead employees to maximize their contribution to a startup. WP Engine is a place of servant leadership, and nobody in the company is above rolling their sleeves up to work hard.

    This sort of work environment has become an essential “quality of life” issue for me at this point ;-P And yes, in many ways, WP Engine is like a family to me. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I think we’ve built something special.

    This is a very personal response in a public forum, but frankly, it’s a very personal blog post, so I’ll continue in the hopes my small story makes someone else believe they can create the life/career they want.

    Thanks for enabling me to work at WP Engine. Thanks for enabling me to build my life, and to know I’m part of building the startup. I think you already know how important that’s been for me. I’m eternally grateful. I love you all too.

    And fortunately (other than jet lag), it feels like I have been on a plane to Austin more often than not since moving. So I will stay close to the team. And the team can continue to grow.

    The sum total of a startup company is more than just the customers you help, or the service you provide, or the revenue you make. It’s also the contribution to everyone’s lives, and how a job at your startup company leaves everyone involved better than they were before. Right down to the last employee, including the guy running the Twitter account.

  • jasonstoddard

    Love is in the air… exciting and new… (and it’s not even February!). Good on ya for owning it, Austin.

  • ronclabo

    Jason I love this post. I’ve been an admirer of your blog for some time. Over and over again, I find myself encouraged and challenged in the very best way by your posts. This one though, is particularly awesome.

  • Don Beeson

    AG, I’m proud of you! When you feel home sick, keep this in mind.

  • GDK

    Been a long-time reader, via RSS. I have never seen any video of you. I thought the linked presentation at AustinPHP was absolutely awesome. Then again, I am an efficiency nut. Now to go track down every other presentation of yours I can find online….. Keep up the good work!

  • http://www.kgaction.com/ Mary Kaplan

    I love the rambling normalness of this post! Yes, being in a startup has its ups and downs. I hope that Austin’s happiness in San Francisco helps the startup do even better!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Gianna-Giavelli/100000725010551 Gianna Giavelli

    Having lived in San Francisco and Austin both I can tell you that the buzz and feel of San Francisco just cannot be matched. And as a company since VC HATE doing deals outside of their little silicon valley offices, it’s really a big win to have an outpost there.

  • angelo

    Wow, your blog (

    Austin in San Francisco

    )is very nice.Just i like it, Thank you so much for
    sharing it!

  • VanessaElizebeth

    I had a great time in reading this.Thank for the share.

    What is your career