Startup Advice

Death to the ping pong table: The Aussie startups breaking the mould with employee perks

Dominic Powell /

startup perks

Canva's head of people Chris Low. Source: Supplied.

Picture this: it’s a bright sunny day in the office. You’re hard at work, stretching to hit a deadline, head down and typing furiously.

In the background, you hear it. A swish and a thock, a hollow click, and a corresponding thock.

The co-founders are playing ping pong, again.

If this sounds like your office, that’s not surprising. Ping pong tables, beer on tap, a slide between levels — these tropes of startup culture are often spruiked by excited new founders, to the point where they can take priority to other, sensible purchases, like a HR officer or a women’s bathroom.

But while 20-something coders in trackpants and hoodies honking a 2pm beer might be the perception (and reality) of a lot of Silicon Valley startups, many Aussie companies are bucking the trend, opting instead to introduce real, beneficial perks for their employees.

Local success story Canva is one of them. The $3.5 billion design company recently moved into its brand new offices in Sydney’s Surry Hills — a bright and spacious multi-storey building adorned with Indigenous art and fitted out with everything a startup employee could want.

While this does include beer on tap, Canva’s head of people (or ‘head of vibe’, as the company calls it), Chris Low, tells StartupSmart the company puts a conscious focus on offering perks to employees which create real value, rather than “gimmicky” ones.

“We’re working towards creating a more productive, engaging and inspiring work environment, which means steering away from gimmicky perks and looking towards more things which encourage a strong work-life balance,” he says.

Canva

A spot in Canva’s fluff-friendly office. Source: Supplied.

Low’s view has been influenced by the mistakes made by leaders in Silicon Valley, even going so far as to take a trip there to speak to heads of people at other Canva-sized startups.

“They admitted those gimmicky perks were a mistake of the past, and actually distracted from why people were coming to work each day,” he says.

“You want your perks to attract the right kind of people with the right kind of attitudes, not the sorts of people who want special tables just for playing beer pong on.”

Canva’s perks include simple things such as employee yoga classes, an in-office gym, diverse office environments for workers and fully catered healthy lunches. Canva’s office also eschews the primary colour-oriented vibe of many large tech companies, something Low says he’s no fan of.

“There’s something especially gimmicky about constructing spaces with lots of primary colours to ‘activate your mind’. It’s surface-level psychology,” he says.

“We tried to design the Canva offices like we’d design our home.”

The startup also offers solutions for “life admin”, such as significant discounts for removal companies and rental car services, so employees moving domestically for work have an easier time.

Employees are also given a budget if they want to establish a club for their particular interest or hobby, with Chris pointing to Canva’s ‘cryptocurrency club’ as an example.

“We’ve got a lot of nerds here,” he laughs

Surface-level perks are poor motivators

For a company the size of Canva and with an entire team dedicated to the wellbeing of its employees, overseeing employee benefits is part and parcel of the everyday.

But increasingly, smaller startups are also choosing to offer employees genuine perks. Heidi Holmes and Lucy Lloyd, co-founders of Mentorloop, tell StartupSmart they “don’t have a ping pong table and never will”.

“[It’s] incredibly annoying to listen to,” Lloyd says.

Instead, the two offer their employees perks focused on making work a meaningful and fulfilling experience, rather than just having ‘fun’. This includes an uncapped learning and development budget for each employee, a completely flexible working schedule (bar Mondays), and a day off on your birthday.

MentorLoop co-founders Heidi Holmes and Lucy Lloyd. Source: Supplied.

MentorLoop co-founders Heidi Holmes and Lucy Lloyd. Source: Supplied.

The founders and their team are also currently on their yearly company retreat, where they “reflect on what we’ve done, set goals for the next quarter and celebrate the wins”.

“It’s important we take time out to connect as a team and enjoy each others company,” Holmes says.

The two believe the startup perk stereotypes are largely indicative of “bro culture”, which can be alienating and counterintuitive when founders want to build diverse teams. Additionally, they say a brand new ping pong table is a poor use of funds for any early-stage startup.

“Ping pong tables and beer may be motivating in the short term — but they are not sustainable motivators for people,” Lloyd says.

“They don’t build an intrinsic attachment to the company, and they don’t build an intrinsic attachment to the vision of what you’re trying to achieve.”

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Dominic Powell

Dominic is the former features and profiles editor at SmartCompany.

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