Alexandra Cavoulacos

The Muse
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How The Muse defied startup culture and defined their own— from the start.

The Muse’s culture is unlike many. Babies are welcome in office. Assholes are banned. Most distinct, though, is their timing. At small companies, people policies are often formed after a trigger event. Not so at The Muse.

The founders never questioned whether to offer employees healthcare. They’ve long had a parental leave policy. They feel strongly that working all weekend and late at night is too much.

Founded in 2011 by CEO Kathryn Minshew and COO/Head of Product Alex Cavoulacos, the NYC-based career-advice portal has helped 50 million people a year (particularly Millennials) find the right company culture for them. Fittingly, The Muse’s own culture is a model for the modern workplace—influenced by the cofounders’ belief in doing what is right, and by their experiences at places like McKinsey, where culture is at the forefront.

“People have different priorities, different lifestyles, different needs at different times in their lives,” COO Alex Cavoulacos explained. “Making sure that our core culture be one that is welcoming of all—I think that’s how we’ve approached it.”

Not quite “all”—their job descriptions outline a strict “no assholes” rule, and it’s not in jest: “It’s been really important to us in terms of not making exceptions for bad behavior just because someone is brilliant enough or creative enough or brings in enough money,” Alex said.

She describes their guiding compass as their Muse-y values: empathy, care, passion, and a focus on doing the right thing to do. It’s ethical, but it’s also part of building a long-term business plan. A startup with a short-term sell might function with assholes in their ranks, but not if they’re in it for the long haul.

Healthcare as a default, not a decision

“Your health and ability to take care of yourself is a minimum guarantee we should be giving our employees,” Alex told us.

From the beginning, The Muse covered health insurance, and today pays 100% of the employee base plan and 80% of the dental plan cost. To her, it didn’t feel like a decision to make, but rather a right. Being raised in Europe informed that conviction—but so did the company’s financials. “We kept our burn reasonable and we had a good handle on our finances,” Alex said. “We were growing and were thoughtful about our revenue versus our expenses.”

In a world where venture-backed startups tend to favor candy bins over benefits, The Muse’s unwavering stance on providing 100% healthcare coverage stands out. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a conversation about healthcare with our investors,” Alex added. “It wasn’t a question they asked us. We just did it the way we wanted.”

The new 9-5

Like many startups, a flexible policy keeps The Muse ticking, letting each team member determine how, when, and where they work best. Unlike many startups, though, excess hours aren’t the norm.

Nobody monitors or checks employee hours; The Muse just asks that all team members be transparent about their schedules and update calendars accordingly. So developers might come in later and work later, while other team members might arrive at 8 a.m. and be done by 4 p.m. Alex herself says she’s a night owl whose ideal is to get to work no earlier than 10 a.m. But core hours naturally emerge, with most people available in the office from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. for meetings.

“If you don’t have meetings, I don’t really care where you’re doing the work,” Alex said. “If you’ll get it done more efficiently there and be more focused, that’s a win in my book.”

Piloting policies as possibilities

The Muse’s flexibility extends beyond work hours and into trying other new ways to design work around employees’ lives. As Alex told us, ““Because work bleeds into life, life has to be allowed to bleed into work.”

Yearly, the company sends staff a survey on benefits and perks, using their responses to determine future spend on things like snacks, extra monitors, or extended healthcare plans. The Muse isn’t afraid to call these rollouts “pilots” or “V1” plans, treating them as true experiments that might very well fail or be adjusted later.

Case in point: Long before anyone in the company had kids or became pregnant, The Muse set up parental leave policies, beginning with paid leave for primary and nonprimary caregivers at 2 and 4 weeks, then expanding weeks to months after their Series A funding. But that was just the start.

In a world where family leave is hotly discussed, many businesses still overlook the off- and on-ramps that make transitioning in and out of leave easier. So when cofounder Kathryn shared an article about companies with bring-your-baby-to-work policies, leadership started talking: Would it make sense for The Muse to allow babies at the office—would it be the right thing to do? What would it take to make it a possibility?

Thinking through the legal, insurance, and financial bits, they drafted a written policy three weeks later: infants are welcome in the office until they’re 6 months old or crawling. The office is equipped with a quiet room designed for napping babies or pumping mothers, with a lockable door, cot, fridge, and no windows. One employee recently brought her infant in three days a week, and office consensus was that everyone would miss having the baby in the office as she grew up.

“It’s been this collective effort of supporting someone in terms of ramping back,” Alex said. “We plan on keeping the policy…It’s all about looking at individual needs and then the collective impact. What we did for this pilot was say, ‘Great. We’ll try this out, see if it works.”