I joined my current employer nearly 9 years ago when there were less than 150 employees. There are now over 400. I have an anecdotal answer from that experience.
The most significant shift in the culture over that time had nothing to do with perks. It’s the gradual creep of things like patterns, presumptions, tech debt and standardization. It’s a shift from “let’s try it,” to “please justify your plan before we risk what we have.” In Why Work Sucks And How To Fix It, the authors summarize all that stuff as “sludge.”
Sludge has changed the culture and my daily experience more than anything else. It’s not necessarily bad. It’s just different. Our company has evolved from frequent, energizing, fingers-crossed all-nighters to a lot more stability and predictability.
I think, ideally, we’d like to benefit from the stability we’ve earned while also having access to the energy and creativity that’s more readily available when you’re small. That’s the aspiration of my company and many others. While we may all agree that attaining that balance is the best option, each daily choice is more easily justified (and trusted, and unchallenged) if it maintains our status quo and employs our proven winning strategies, not diverge from them. That’s “gradual creep.”
I don’t think there has to be a difference between a start up culture and an established company, but it takes a special kind of focus and boldness to stop what is simply human nature.