With wide array of perks, startups seek to sweeten deal for employees
The Hurrdat team enjoys their surprise vacation in Lead, South Dakota.
They then told her to bring her bags to dinner with her coworkers, where they all were surprised with a vacation. The destination? The Black Hills in South Dakota, for a weekend of skiing, bar-hopping and most importantly, no work.
“It was a really good bonding experience for all of us,” said Vogel, who noted that the lack of Internet connection was welcomed by the Hurrdat employees.
“It’s so hard to get away from work in social media,” Vogel (left) said. “Just to go on a trip where everybody could relax and stop thinking about all that was awesome.”
Team retreats, computer hardware reimbursements, free meals or coffee and free learning experiences are just some of the non-traditional benefits that many startups in the region share with employees. Startups can't always afford to offer employees the highest salaries or all of the traditional benefits of an established company, like a premium health insurance policy or 401K. But many in the region provide other perks to help make up for that.
“We’re fully aware that software developers are not the easiest people to find in the world,” said Parrish, who is in charge of the company's human resources department.
Hudl, which makes web-based video analysis and coaching tools for sports teams, is one of many companies that offer a wide variety of perks for employees, from an annual Las Vegas team retreat to free daily lunches, and everything in between.
A wide array of perks
Hurrdat and Hudl are hardly the only startups in the region offering employees benefits that go beyond company culture and health insurance. At Cedar Falls, Iowa-based Banno (formerly T8 Webware), product marketing manager Bryan McCarty said employees are often surprised with a stack of new programming books — or they can choose which ones they’d like to buy and the company will reimburse them.
Banno, a financial web strategy firm with about 60 employees, also pays for developers to attend a conference in St. Louis every year. Hudl reimburses employees for the costs of learning materials and conferences as well.
Des Moines-based Hatchlings, creators of a Facebook game in which users search for hidden eggs, provides employees with a part-time office space on the shores of Lake Panorama, where founder Brad Dwyer lives.
“On a typical day at the lake we start working between 8 and 9, grill or go out to eat around 1, work for another couple of hours, and then if the weather's nice and we're not too swamped … we'll go surfing or boating for a couple of hours at the end of the day,” Dwyer said.
Hatchlings design lead Lyndsay Clark works on Lake Panorama on an unusually nice day last January.
Hatchlings, which has six full-time employees, also hosts meetups between the company’s employees and its fans across the world – past locations include Melbourne, Brisbane, Houston, Toronto and Sydney — and in the fall, a majority of the Hatchlings team will trek to London for a meetup.
“For the London trip we'll be covering almost all of it,” Dwyer said. “We are still a startup though so it's definitely not going to be first class flights and five-star hotels.”
Kansas City, Mo. entrepreneur Matt Watson said as a founder of VinSolutions, which he sold to AutoTrader.com last year, and now Stackify, he has often taken employees out for lunch or dinner, given them free T-shirts and thrown big Christmas parties. "It was always a lot of social activity outside of work," Watson (below) said.
Hudl, which has 57 employees in its Lincoln office, provides several unique perks as well as the traditional startup fare.
Having clients who happen to be NCAA Division I and NFL football teams means free pairs of tickets to games on a first come, first served basis for employees. Hudl covers the travel expense (if necessary) for employees and the price of the tickets. The only cost the employee is responsible for is the flight for the person attending with them, Parrish said.
“We’ve had some really cool opportunities,” he said. “I attended a University of Colorado game last year, and the guy we work with there got us field passes.”
In 2011, the company also began offering employees $250 each year to give to a charity of their choice. The program is called “Hudl Helps” and only requires that the charity is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
This year the company also set specific figures for computer hardware reimbursements. Employees working on product development are allotted $1,500 every two years to keep their computers current. Those working in sales and support receive $800, also every two years.
“There’s no excuse for us to have outdated technology in any part of the company,” Parrish said.
And when two years is up, the computers are wiped clean and the employees are free to keep them if they choose.
About the only thing Hudl employees feel is missing from the company’s long list of perks, Parrish said, is a gym membership or in-office workout facility.
So what's the sacrifice?
Many companies offer traditional benefits as well as unique perks. Hudl covers 100 percent of the premiums for employees’ health insurance policies and offers a 401(k) retirement plan as well. Banno's employee insurance plan includes the option to add dental and vision insurance.
But for some small or young startups, traditional benefits aren't financially feasible. Dwyer said that for a company of Hatchlings' size, it doesn't make financial sense to offer health insurance for employees, but he is working on setting up a 401(k).
Vogel said Hurrdat does not not currently offer insurance plans for its employees but does have a preferred insurance provider with individual rates. Vogel said most employees at Hurrdat are under 26 years old and remain on their parents’ insurance policies.
“As we get older and as we grow, that’s obviously something that’s in the forefront of what we need to plan for,” Vogel said.
Hudl CEO David Graff said the sacrifice of offering unique benefits is end-of-the-year bonuses for employees. "We decided early in Hudl's existence that, for us, year-end bonuses across the board were less interesting than increasing salaries and offering really cool gifts and perks," he said.
However, some traditional benefits were offered by Hudl from the day the company hired its first full-time employee in March of 2007, including computer hardware compensation, paid health insurance premiums and free meals.
Above: Hudl's Bryant Bone shows his excitement for the iPad 2's Hudl employees received at last year's Christmas party. Every employee also received an Apple TV.
The big picture
Graff said there are some perks — health insurance and a 401(k) plan — that he considers fundamental. Beyond that, benefits that mean the most to Hudl are the ones that enhance the company's culture and atmosphere.
According to Watson, the real perk of working for a startup is being more than just a number to your boss, along with the flexibility that comes along with working for a small company. "There's not this giant HR department with these stupid rules that everyone has to follow," Watson said.
"A lot of startups say, 'Well if I’m going to attract top talent, I need to do more of these things, include people, make them feel like their opinion matters and do special things for them,'" he added.
For Vogel, a lower salary or lack of health care plan is a fair trade-off for working with a boss who's approachable — "It's not weird for me to run into my boss at the bar downtown," she said — at a company where a little fun is encouraged once in a while.
“I can’t really see myself working in a corporate setting,” she said. “For me this is so perfect.”
Credits: Photo of Hurrdat team from facebook.com. Photo of Krista Vogel courtesy of Hurrdat. Photo of Lynday Clark courtesy of Brad Dwyer. Photo of Matt Watson courtesy of Watson. Photo of Bryant Bone from facebook.com.