Answer by Edmond Lau, Quip Engineer, on Quora,

The most powerful and sustainable motivator for an early employee at a startup, or for employees at any company for that matter, is the sense of meaning derived from work. Meaning comes from working on a product whose long-term vision you believe will have an impact. It comes from working with a team whose members you respect, who constantly challenges you to learn and get better, and who you can't bear to let down. It comes from the dopamine rush you get from building and releasing something that your user base will love.

What it doesn't come from, however, is the promise of financial rewards. While commonly cited as key reasons for joining a startup, glimpses of financial success can be useful for closing potential candidates and can be strong motivators initially, but they are often too abstract and too far into the future to incentivize the day-to-day. Moreover, financially motivated employees tend to be susceptible to blips in a startup's performance and to be the first to go if the financial situation ever starts to look bleak.

At Quora, I (and many others) typically worked 60 or more hours per week; other startups I've talked to often expect similar (and sometimes even more grueling) schedules. Whether employees can find meaning in their work determines the time and effort that they're willing to invest, and the meaning behind the work affects the sustainability of long work hours over the long run. Failure to find meaning can quickly crush any joy or motivation to work.

In The Upside of Irrationality, behavioral economist Dan Ariely describes an experiment to demonstrate how the meaning of work significantly impacts the motivation for work. He recruited Harvard students who loved Legos to build Lego Bionicle robots and paid them decreasing amounts for each additional robot built; the first robot earned $2, the next $0.11 less ($1.89), the third another $0.11 less ($1.78), and so forth. The research assistant also informed the participant that at some point, the Legos would have to be dismantled for the next participant. In one group, the lab had numerous Lego kits available, and the assistant would simply place each completed robot in a box underneath the table; in the second group, only two kits were available, so as a participant started on the next robot, the assistant would immediately dismantle the previous robot in the event the participant wanted to continue building. Not surprisingly, participants in the first group who didn't see their work immediately dismantled built significantly more robots (10.6 on average) than those in the second group (7.2 on average). [1] Meaningful work led to happier participants, generated more output, and compensated for lower pay.

Humans aren't the only ones with a preference for meaningful work. Animal psychology studies have shown that parrots, rats, and other animals may look for meaning as well and actually prefer to press on a bar for food than to eat freely available food. [2] This phenomenon, known as "contrafreeloading," contradicts the traditional notion that animals strive to maximize output while minimizing effort and suggests that the additional effort may actually make the food more worthwhile.

A lack of meaning or sense of accomplishment is one of the key reasons why people decide to leave big companies for startups. When I worked at Google, its protected brand made it extremely difficult to make anything but the most minimal UI change to the search results page without getting approval from everyone in the search quality chain of command, including Marissa and oftentimes Larry and Sergey. Projects like SearchWiki [3] or the left search options bar [4] took years to launch, and then only by executive decree. It became apparent that engineers could easily spend months or a year on a project only to have it shelved; long-running prototypes and experiments often found some support but had no plausible launch paths. Like the participants whose Lego creations were dismantled, many ex-Googlers lost motivation and left for smaller startups after projects that they had worked on for a long time were scrapped; those whose projects succeeded were typically happy to stay.

For all their stereotypical nimbleness, however, startups can also create situations that deprive work of its meaning. During my time at Ooyala, our team spent over a month building out custom transcoding infrastructure, a custom portal, and a custom analytics module in a deal to power the overhyped Joost [5]; a few months afterwards, Joost restructured, lost its CEO, and stopped using Ooyala. [6] We also delayed launching a new player rearchitecture to spend a month building a player module that would synchronize playback across multiple browsers, in order to support an online theater experience for Funimation [7]; unfortunately, the customer lacked the technical expertise to build on top of the delivered product, and the online theater experience never materialized. That both customers paid for the custom work did little to alleviate the loss of engineering morale that resulted from seeing months (over a man-year) of work and misplaced excitement evaporate, and the two incidents very likely contributed to key members burning out and eventually leaving the team.

It's a fact that not every effort will succeed, particularly at startups. Startups are inherently risky, and many embrace the mantra of "If you're not failing, you're not trying hard enough." Even small failures, however, can chip away at work motivation. Picking the right team and the right product to work on obviously helps. But beyond that initial choice, a key focus of a startup should be to reduce the cost of failure for projects to a point where employees can still stay excited even when their creations fail to get traction.

What follows are a few mentalities and strategies that I've found important in keeping my work meaningful and that I've seen others successfully use:

  • Validate new ideas early with simple proofs of concept. The more time that's spent on a project before it's scrapped, the more draining it can be on the morale of the people who worked on it. Low-fidelity mocks and hacked up prototypes that aren't necessarily built the right way can both provide quick sanity checks on ideas before investing substantially more resources into the project. Prior to investing months building Ooyala's analytics on top of Cassandra, Ilya Sukhar, and I spent a week performance-testing Cassandra and another week building a simple demo to hammer out the secondary indices, paging, and segmentation features that we needed to support; this preliminary investment helped to increase confidence that we were on the right path.
  • Iterate quickly and often. Reducing the time to build a prototype or to iterate from months down to weeks or days or even hours is critical. Many times, this requires an investment in infrastructure and abstractions to make prototyping fast. Having to write C++ code to prototype changes to a UI almost certainly dooms your project to fail; while seemingly obvious, this is what many people working on Google Search UI had to do while I was there from 2006-2008.
  • Work under decisive leadership. Eliminating the bureaucratic hurdles, if any, as early as possible and securing buy-in from key decisionmakers who can commit to their choices substantially reduces the probability that someone in the chain of command withholds his approval at the last minute and scraps your project weeks or months too late. Part of this involves working under strong leadership; the other involves proactively seeking their input when consensus is necessary.
  • Work on multiple, ongoing projects of varying degrees of risk and size. Diversifying the projects that you individually work on increases the probability that at least some of your projects will succeed, which is critical to maintaining a sense of accomplishment when other ones fail or take longer than expected.

If you're in a startup for the long haul like I am, pushing hard on these fronts helps to ensure that the 60+ working hours you spend per week are meaningful and sustainable, in a way that the hope of financial reward often cannot.

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Published on: Aug 29, 2014