Maybe I just don’t appreciate the finer things.

I very rarely write an opinion based on someone else’s opinion. I say that because I want to make it clear that I don’t disagree with anything in this TechCrunch article about how the disappearance of top-shelf perks like Odwalla beverages at a startup is a sure sign of trouble. But as I was reading the article, and enjoying it, I was waiting for the obvious corollary, which never came.

So I’m adding it.

In the article, the author, Ryan Lawler, uses some anecdotal evidence to make the following point:

“When the Odwalla and the Red Bull dry up, when the weekly happy hour becomes crappy hour, when you have to peel your own eggs — these are the leading indicators that your company is in trouble.”

Peel your own eggs?

But he’s absolutely 100% right. When a company hits the financial skids, the obvious first cuts are the nice-to-haves – which usually come down to the employee perks, because when you’ve scaled the burn too far up, you need to scale it back. We’ve all gone through this in our own personal lives. When times get tight, you go to the off-premium brands, then cut out the minor indulgences, then the major indulgences, because you’ve got to pay the rent and the power bill.

I get it. I’m on board.

But reading the article and a few dozen comments, all of which were in agreement, I never saw the reverse, which I’ll put this way:

When your company starts replacing store-brand bottled water with Vitamin Water and Coke with Odwalla, you might want to take a look around, because there’s a sign there too.

That sign may be that the company has lost control of the culture, and they’re using perks to mask that fact.

Onsite Yoga Classes Anyone?

First let me state that I’m no Scrooge hoarding my coal. I’m a true believer that you have to spend money to make money. I’m even decidedly for perks, especially those that I can participate in. But it’s no secret that in all my years of startups, I’ve been notoriously cost-conscious. Not cheap, I believe in paying for talent and keeping everyone happy, but I’ll go through a 15-point decision process before agreeing to add any permanent increase to the monthly burn.

It’s always easy to add something, especially when you’re flush with revenue, but it’s very difficult to pull that same something back without a hit to morale or, as the Lawler article deftly points out, suspicion that the company is in trouble. In my decision tree, I think of it as 3x. If a perk provides X amount of benefit, it’s going to suck three times as much if you have to eliminate it.

At Automated Insights, we’re very generous with benefits like free health insurance, top-of-the-line laptops, no vacation policy, all kinds of sodas and premium coffees, plenty of office sports from ping-pong to foosball to darts, and a healthy amount of office outings.

But we also have second-hand (maybe third-hand) furniture, we’re in a nondescript, out-of-downtown office building, we have three office phones, and in almost all the ways we call ourselves cool, we still eschew the fancy for the functional.

I should also tell you we’re a “Best Place to Work” in Raleigh/Durham.

This is because, I believe anyway, that we’ve never taken our focus off of maintaining company culture in our three-plus years of growth. We’re anti-political, competitive and respectful, and very much concerned that we maintain a place where we want to be every day, even days that aren’t our favorite.

We’re also here to crush it. So we put constant energy on making sure that AI is a great place to work as well as a contender for greatness. We consider perks like premium drinks, tablets, and even onsite yoga classes, and for the most part turn them down.

On the other hand, we did try a SodaStream once as a cost saving measure. After just a few taste tests, it was quickly eliminated in favor spending whatever it took to keep ourselves caffeinated, sugared, and hydrated.

Lesson learned.

Ignoring Lessons

But I’ve seen the lesson ignored, several times over.

I’ve seen how new money brings in all sorts of questionable spending, and it’s not just premium upgrades in food and snacks. If anything, that’s scratching the surface. I’m talking about questionable spending on space, hires, conferences, morale programs, and perks that have nothing to do with retention, but are more about perception.

For instance, I can’t tell you how many times an office move has brought about the beginning of the end.

Every successful startup will outgrow their space, and these are pivotal points in the company trajectory. There are all sorts of temptations, from chic addresses to ergonomic office chairs to chill rooms. I’ve been at startups who outgrew perfectly acceptable environments and moved into new, sprawling spaces at the latest destination parks.

But it wasn’t just the move – it was the upgrades in architecture, furniture, technology area, kitchen area, BATHROOM area, a sculpture-turned-bike-rack, a fountain where no fountain needed to be, a 30-foot retracting projection screen, a chef, electronic noise-dampeners, a climbing wall, dedicated parking spots for management, golf and pool memberships …

Dude. Work should not be a country club.

Within the space of a few months, in every case, I watched productivity plummet. Hunger had been replaced with comfort, aggressiveness with complacency, risk-taking with caution. There’s that old line from Office Space – paraphrased – that the fear of losing one’s job will only make them work just hard enough not to get fired.

It works the other way too – when you make the workplace too comfortable, perks turn into standards, and people will do just enough work to maintain that comfort level.

Perks aren’t inherently evil, and in most cases they’re necessary to maintain a healthy work force. My point is that employee attraction and retention should always, first and foremost, be about the mission and the culture.

If you have to stock Odwalla and put a TV in the bathroom to get employees and potential employees excited about your company, then maybe you’re doing the culture wrong.

Editor’s note: Joe Procopio is a serial entrepreneur, writer, and speaker. He is VP of Product at Automated Insights and the founder of startup network and news resource ExitEvent. Follow him at @jproco or read him at