The Start-Up Culture: The Many Faces of Inspiring Workplaces

Friday, May 3, 2019

Like any up-and-comer, like you, like all of us, I fantasize about working at Google. Facebook might be great, too. So might any architect's office, if every single photo in "AD" can be trusted. Speaking at least about the tech companies, their campuses are sprawling utopias for those with $6,000 leases and fixed-gear bicycles. They look like all the best images from Pinterest were printed out and then conjured into three dimensions by some Stanford-educated magician.

These companies are not only pretty; they also are changing the way we think about work. My best friend dated a Googler a few years ago. One day, this girlfriend decided the Bay Area hampered her "vibe," and therefore her creativity and productivity. Instead of telling her to get lost, like I probably would have, Google bought her apartment and paid for her to move to Paris for a while. She kept her same job, same salary and same team. They took practical steps to inspire her in her workplace. I assume her "vibe" got fixed in the process, but she broke up with my friend, and anyways, vibes are not something I will pretend to understand.

I have the pleasure of working in an environment that acts as an office-on-demand with a revolving door for dozens of our customers every day -- a coffee shop. Mix cool music, good lighting, modern d├ęcor and caffeine, and you get an atmosphere that makes one feel more. The creative class spends hours at my tables, presumably getting work done. Codefi in Cape Girardeau provides a similar atmosphere, which is why dozens of startups want to work there. Something about a beautiful room filled with ambitious people makes us want to get busy. It also helps us enjoy the task. The WeWork titan, with its Softbank billions, knows the secret, too -- provide a place people want to spend their days, and they will pay you to allow them to exist there.

Maybe your workplace looks like a dump. Maybe you work in an actual dump. Or perhaps you are one of the masses whose place of business fails to inspire -- screaming children, fluorescent lighting, rows of fryers and dish pits, stressed and angry bosses working for the weekend. From the outside, one might wonder why we continue to clock in to these jobs every day. How can we stand it? Where do we find the motivation? I'll tell you. We do not binge "The Office" or "Parks and Recreation" or any workplace narrative because their jobs or their spaces inspire us. We watch for the people.

I have had some terrible jobs in terrible places. Seriously, some of them I would not wish on anyone. But no matter how much I dreaded waking up every morning, one thought inevitably entered my head while I brushed my teeth or put on my socks: "Oh well, at least so-and-so will be there."

I always look forward to seeing so-and-so. At another coffee shop more than 10 years ago, it was Campbell. He was already in his 30s, still in college, still working part time, and the funniest person I've ever known. He did very poor impressions of every co-worker, and he always stopped to stir the ice in the icemaker, which, if you've ever worked in a restaurant, you know is not a task anyone has ever needed to do. Another part-timer there, Levi, spoke to customers via the drive-thru microphone in a convincing robot voice. Every single time, I laughed until I cried. Several years later, I worked a job cleaning restaurant equipment as a mindless lemming with no hope for a future. But I worked with Mike. He came equipped with a deep Chicagoan accent and spent lots of time telling crazy stories and trying to learn how to rap. Looking back, I see we complained about our job and laughed together in equal measure.

We work jobs for innumerable reasons. Not all of us can rise in the ranks of the creative class and take breaks in nap pods (Google it). The rest of us have to do the rest of the work. Luckily, there are Campbells, Levis and Mikes to do it with us. Think about who inspires you to stick it out at your grind. Thank them sometime and try to return the favor if you can. If you cannot think of even one person who makes your workplace inspiring, then, well ... maybe it should be you.

Colby Williams is the co-founder of Parengo Coffee in Sikeston, Missouri. His new book, "Small Town Big Money," is available now at