Getting carried away
What founders and VCs really think about the expose of Away's culture
On Thursday, The Verge posted a long form article featuring quotes from ex-employees at Away (a luggage startup) detailing a “toxic work environment” where employees would be publicly reprimanded, “bullied”, and requests for PTO and WFH would be withheld.
Unsurprisingly this triggered a firestorm on Twitter, where some VCs (but not all) started remarking that they saw nothing really noteworthy here. Other VCs and founders opted to stay stayed silent even though they also felt the same way in fear of retaliation.
I’m not here to profess an opinion about the piece, but I am interested in the discrepancy between public statements (or the lack thereof) and private beliefs. One of the books on my reading list is called “Private Truths, Public Lies” which details the consequences of when people are compelled to voice false opinions because of social pressures (a tame example from the book’s description: telling your host at a dinner how great the food is when you think it’s bland).
I thought there was more that people (especially VCs and founders) wanted to say but wouldn’t say so under their own account so I put out a call for thoughts on Twitter.
You can read the full thread here (scroll up to see every tweet). I got around 25 more responses after I closed the thread and I’ve included them at the bottom of this email.
Here’s a quick summary of the most commonly voiced positions from each group:
Founder: As a woman of color in tech running my own consultancy, what was sadder than reading the article was reading comments from leaders in tech praising the Away CEO’s “work ethic”. This was yet another disturbing window into the minds of the privileged who fund and run companies in tech.
VC: “I'm annoyed by the VCs and Founder[s] that act as if bullying is necessary for performance or leadership. They need better business role models.”
Operator: Have seen much worse. When the company is successful, this kind of thing is looked upon fondly in retrospect, as a twisted team building exercise, like hazing. When the company fails, everyone recognizes it as the abuse it was.
Someone familiar with Away’s CEO: I don’t think she’s a bad person. Startups are hard, and can create a toxic environment. While I don’t think she is a malicious person, the stress most likely contributed to the behavioral change. It doesn’t excuse her from how she treated her employees, though.
Non Profit Exec: Dylan Matthews' point has stuck with me - startups have co-opted the language of nonprofits and government regarding "mission" to justify long hours, stress, poor pay/benefits. But the "mission" is just...making money.
VC: “I think there’s room to empathize with a first time founder in her 20’s running a business that grew 10x YoY and facing their first real holiday season. There’s also room to say that she fucked up. Her words and actions were regrettable but the whole company rallied against stacked odds. We should be able to commend aspects of [her] leadership while also condemning.”
Founder: “Late night slacks aren’t a problem. Slack mutes notifs outside of work hours by default! Posting in channels about work-related stuff instead of DMs encourages transparency and teamwork and ensures everyone has the information they need to do their jobs.”
Founder: “I wish Crunchbase would tag VC profiles with their reaction to this story so I could filter out the ones I would never, ever, want on my board.”
VC: “For an ecommerce operation CS is really important because impacts margins and reputation. Chronic backlogs like this scream that the org needs to be restructured and that Away needs a new CEO that knows what they're doing.”
Operator: With appropriate disclaimers (I really don't know what their CX did except responding back to emails): for 40k/ year she could have outsourced the CX work to India and would have got about 6 good CX folks to respond to email. Also, 4000 outstanding messages => something seriously wrong with the product or managing customer expectations or BTL messaging.
Founder: “[The article] really was nothing more than gossip/performative bullshit. These stories/hit-pieces serve as a framing mechanism - instantiating the public perception of widespread in-group/out-group bias - and producing an ‘enemy image’ in which to scapegoat/banish/cancel from socially constructed reality. In this case, Steph Korey.”
Founder: “Steph violated Social Justice orthodoxy on numerous fronts - which is why it was necessary to carry out an auto-da-fé against her.”
Operator: “She would have been totally fine if she hadn't sent that slack with the bold emphasis. Bold text is solely the domain of the unhinged”
Founder: “As a woman founder: “Growing at a healthy pace?” Not taking enough risks, not challenging the team; women can’t lead.
“Pushing too hard, toxic culture?” Can’t manage growth; women can’t lead.”
Founder: “If "Values" twisted to justify abuse, employees will also distort values; end result: destruction of co. values: "I will teach you being accountable"=I will fire you if you don't work 90 hrs this wk but no OT, little/no equity. Values=HIRE MORE PEOPLE! Values =/= one way street; good short term cash flow, bad long term”
Operator: “Investor: oh, I like how this founder is so obsessed and will run through walls. I’m sure they’ll work really hard and hire/force people to do the same. Also, [they] explicitly tried to build a cult. Just like Zappos, AmWay, etc- sometime it works but more times it doesn’t. You can’t lie to yourself as an employee and say luggage matters. As a founder, you can. From the beginning, Korey and Rubio were masterful at getting these young employees hyped up about their jobs. “You are joining a movement,” Nope. It’s not a movement. It’s a cult meant to get the valuation pumped through fast growth.”
VC: “That CX team was severely underperforming. A 4 person team should have easily been able to handle that volume, and I’ve worked at a company that did that and seen others.
The CEO was in a tough spot—severely underperforming team in the busy and important part of the year.
I’m sure she tried kindness and inspiration first. And when it didn’t work, what do you do? You can fire the team right before the holidays and hire a team of unknowns. Or you can do whatever to get them actually working productively and not spending all day complaining on Slack.”
VC: “I know the take away from this article is going to be “don’t hire POC” they won’t solve the problems at your company and will blame them all on racism. And that’s terrible […; POC …] are used to doing things under severe constraint and are the most amazing problem solvers that you’ve ever seen. This article was both racist and sexist in the guise of not being that way.”
Founder: “People who respond “sometimes you have to work really hard! that’s a company” don’t appreciate that this problem has no end in sight as “solved” by the CEO and that’s the core issue. Working that hard forever with no exit ramp while being berated by management because they’re downstream of a failing plan = bad management, full stop”
Founder: “ppl chose complaining over quitting. Every top startup is as or more intense. Journalists are jealous of how much money ppl at startups make so the reach for these narratives. Journalists need to be held accountable”
Founder: “the overall feeling I get is that founders are so focused on getting their business off the ground and creating traction they (Away founders) have forgotten that their staff do not have "skin in the game"... They take pride in their work, sure, but they're not the owners. So, the CEOs are expecting a team effort for every aspect of this startup, forgetting that most are there for a pay check.”
VC: “it’s a convenience/luxury product that is not that innovative and may very well encourage an increased carbon footprint from travel. We don’t need Away, it’s not the best use of resources (including the time I’m spending typing this response). I’m sure there’s tons of nuance to this but the Verge story certainly paints Away as the anti-thesis to purposeful business. Now let’s stop talking about Away and do something more useful with our time.”
Founder: “A simple leadership observation: at no point does she ever reference an existing goal and redirect behavior towards achieving that goal. The classic bad manager signal is constantly revising goals in real time as an emotional response to things not going the way the manager would have liked. This is the definition of micro management and it tends to yo-yo staff around because how can you hit a goal you didn’t know you were being evaluated on?Also slack for communicating goals is just lunacy. I completely get it, and am empathetic about how hard it is to become a good manager, but I’m surprised the narrative is [more focused on] how she’s ‘evil’ and [not as much about …] leadership skills.”
Founder: “It’s v bad to threat+pressure people who are already burned. Foolish to do it over chat. Unacceptable to condition vacations/ overtime of employees. I believe the founder got carried away. I hope she recovers. I made mistakes, others were kind to let me redeem myself.”
Founder: “As a founder I struggle managing time commitment expectations of employees. That part didn’t surprise me. Secondly, I have found hard conversations/negative feedback for employees have been far more successful done in a private setting. But hey, something is working over there!”
Employee: “Honestly I see absolutely nothing wrong with the CEO and how she handled things. Her obligation is to shareholders, customers and the board and everything she said was in that pursuit. I think our generation wants it too easy frankly, a leader who focuses on collective friendship and positive feeling as priority no. 1 in the startup environment is not a leader in my opinion.”
Operator: “Away’s exec team obviously had some target of what their numbers would be, months in advance. If you work backwards - fulfillment to customers, trucking to warehouse, ocean voyage, export customs in China, manufacturing and QC, raw material order - the CEO and CFO were likely seeking and approving a line of credit or other debt line to fund the holiday orders in June or July. The production numbers and ramp should have been communicated to every team. And at the end of the day it’s on the CEO to make sure all her teams are staffed up and ready to go. If CX is overloaded over the holidays, it’s not on the agent making $40k. It’s on the CEO and relevant VPs for not having enough agents, enough templates, the right software tools built, whatever”
Operator: “Have seen much worse. When the company is successful, this kind of thing is looked upon fondly in retrospect, as a twisted team building exercise, like hazing. When the company fails, everyone recognizes it as the abuse it was.”
Founder: “What disappoints me most is the bad faith. The assumption from most people seems to be that the CEO and exec team purposely and maliciously attempt to manipulate and control employees at every turn. The base premise is that using slack publicly for transparency is a lie with an insidious "real" purpose of public shame. Of course she fucked up. I fuck up every day. It just makes me sad that so many people are now berating her on Twitter and elsewhere from the starting point of her being a devious sociopath. We should all be giving each other the benefit of the doubt more”
Founder: “Where is Jen Rubio in all this and was Steph doing all the actual work? I find it hard to believe that Jen was clueless in what was going on. As cofounders you’re both complicit”
Employee: “I have no idea how this got more attention than the COO at Riot Games who farted in people’s faces, but VCs clearly won’t care until labor laws are properly enforced & it hits the bottom line”
VC: “I’m a VC... and embarrassed by almost all of the VC replies/takes. There’s a difference between hustle and being humiliating and abusive towards people. I can’t wait until we get to a point when people don’t excuse assholes or asshole behavior for business execution or ambition for a world leading business”
VC: “Core problem here was clearly ops & process, not culture. Not enough automation / efficient triaging of basic CX interactions, not right team mix (more offshore, obviously, but also why hire in NY where a $40K salary = poverty & constant anxiety?), not enough team members overall, poor communication between Ops & CX. Founder was solving core ops issues with elbow grease & shame.”
A quick side note: I think Sriram is correct that this a type of conversation that needs a special experience to enable and that it needs to be carefully curated (since anonymous social products generally tend towards chaos/lawlessness). I share the desire that people would openly be able to share their thoughts here, but the reasons that they won’t are clear.