In our culture of overwork, we sometimes jest that we spend so much time with coworkers that we “practically live together.” But what if you actually lived with your coworkers?
Victor Ho does. The cofounder of the business loyalty network FiveStars has lived with his cofounder, Matt Doka, in the Bay Area since 2010. Other employees have since moved in, and FiveStars eventually used its cohabitation model as a template when expanding to other cities.
We caught up with Ho to learn more about why living with your coworkers could be the best decision you make for your business.
FiveStars’s culture of cohabitation began with its founders, Ho and Doka. The duo met at McKinsey, where they got their idea for a loyalty network for local businesses. The only problem: They didn’t know how to code. “We were just two business guys, and we knew we were useless unless we could code,” says Ho. In late summer of 2010, they moved from New York to San Jose, rented a house from the parents of a friend, and began their experiment in productive cohabitation.
“We locked ourselves in a room for three months straight, had ramen for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and taught ourselves Python,” recalls Ho. “We transformed our living room into a work space. We’d wake up, walk 20 feet down the hall, sit down at the table, not move except to eat, then go to bed. We felt behind, and we were trying to figure out, how can we cram more productive hours into a day?” They began experimenting with alternate sleep cycles, eventually settling on 22 hours of wakefulness followed by six hours of sleep.
It paid off: Ho and Doka built a prototype within months, were accepted into Y Combinator, and launched an initial beta of their product in February of 2011.
Isn’t it difficult to balance work and life if you live with your coworkers? The whole point of a startup, says Ho, is to upend the traditional work/life duality. “The beauty of a startup,” he says, “is that it’s not about work/life balance. You’re working on something you’re passionate about, that’s fun, with people you like. A startup isn’t about work/life balance, it’s about work/life integration.”
The line between work and socializing is more than blurred, for Ho and Co.; it’s obliterated. “When you’re drinking beer late at night or having a social events, a lot of great ideas flow,” says Ho. “There are a lot of resonant things like that that you pick up when living together.”
In the early days of a startup, the workplace can feel more like home than your apartment or house, anyway. One employee recently brought in his set of free weights to the office, finding he spent more time there than at home. A culture of midday workouts soon took root at the workplace. “A bunch of people recently did P90X together,” says Ho.
From the moment FiveStars began hiring additional employees (by now, it has about 80), the culture of living together grew. “Our first two hires we still live with,” says Ho; there are now roughly six FiveStars apartments in the Bay Area. As FiveStars has gained beachheads in other cities, it had exported the culture of cohabitation elsewhere, too.
You might think this would be a recipe for conflict, but a tradition of radical honesty keeps tempers cool. From the earliest days of the experiment, the group would gather at a Cupertino bar for brutally honest feedback sessions. Workplace criticisms like “When you’re problem-solving, I think you jump around too much” would share the stage with housekeeping concerns like “You didn’t refill the toilet paper when you used up the roll for the third time.”
The only violence team members have inflicted on each other has been entirely accidental (and even well-intentioned). One day, Doka was having a hard day at work, so Ho bought him mangoes, Doka’s favorite fruit. The only problem? Ho had bought yellow mangoes, which it turned out Doka was allergic to.
“He had a big allergic reaction where his entire face swells up. I rushed to CVS, got antihistamines, and drugged him up as best he could.” Doka didn’t go to the hospital, says Ho, “because he was still trying to get work done. The day after, with his eyes still swollen, he went back to coding.”
From its humble, ramen-noodle beginnings, FiveStars has grown into what it says is the largest loyalty network for local businesses. That has translated into hiring, and expanding into new markets. When opening shop in Seattle, L.A., Denver, Dallas, and Chicago, FiveStars again rented houses for employees who wound up living together. When it’s time for a business trip to any of these cities, there’s couches waiting to be crashed on--translating into thousands of dollars of savings on hotel costs.
“Even now when we hold executive leadership meetings,” says Ho, “we do offsites at people’s houses.” The team recently had four big meetings to map out a big product timeline; all four were held in different living rooms.
When launching in new cities, the prospect of solving employment and housing problems in one fell swoop has actually been a selling point for some new hires. Job offers are extended together with housing offers thrown in for lagniappe.
Ho confesses that he’s not so great at doing dishes. “I’m trying to get better,” he says. Meanwhile, he knows that for his roommate/coworker Eric, it’s a pet peeve when people don’t do their dishes.
There’s only one complicating factor: Ho is Eric’s boss.
“Because Eric reports to me at work, it’s a little bit weird. I’m sure it’s hard for Eric to be like, ‘Hey dude, you gotta clean up.’ At one point at work, he’s reporting to me, then at the next point we’re supposed to be peers.”
In one respect it’s weird; in another respect it’s simply practicing a culture of horizontality that FiveStars is committed to. Ho acknowledges that eventually he and his coworkers will get older, marry, and move out; Ho’s nearing his 27th birthday, and it’s hard to imagine he’d still like to be bickering about toilet paper with coworkers a decade from now. But he hopes that the culture of cohabitation--one in which workers are peers and friends, one in which the planning of product maps mingles with talk of housing supplies, and one in which your employee has every right to berate you about the dishes--will continue long past the day that he and his roommates move out.