When I moved out to the bay area in June of 2000, I didn't know too much about working for a start-up. 8 years later and I am on number 3. If you read Hacker news
or any of the VC
/ entrepreneur blogs
, there are plenty of folks who talk about start-ups
, the lifestyle, the dos and do-nots. All helpful stuff. I'm going to try to add to that list by providing actual examples of good and bad that I've seen in my three start-ups and gives some rules to live by. So, the first of many parts....
Marksonland Start-Up Rule #1: You Can Choose Your Family
Unlike growing up where you parents admonished that you can choose your friends but not your family, in the start-up world you actually do get to choose your family - they're your co-founders and co-workers. They're the ones you'll be laughing, crying, criticizing, celebrating, fighting, teasing, annoying, complementing, brainstorming, traveling, pitching, failing, succeeding, eating, etc. with during your tenure at your company.
Take another look at that list again carefully - take it from me, you will be doing all of that stuff with these people. So when choosing your family, choose carefully. Pick people you think you will be comfortable doing every one of those things with.
Everyone has their quirks, but there are certain types of people that you can be on the look out for that, in my experience, are deleterious to a small company. If you see any of these folks, run:
Mr. Big Company: Beware of the person who has spent most of his career
working thriving in the modern day bureaucracy known as the big company. Making decisions quickly and decisively is not his forte. (Spending his entire day going from internal meeting to internal meeting is, I think).
This is not to say that anyone who has spent time working in big companies is not a good start-up guy - that's not true. I'm saying stay away from those with big company mentality. Every decision requires a committee and consensus, covering your tracks is more important that moving forward. These folks are bad news for a start-up that has to hunt and kill every day in order to eat.
The Empire Builder: Often going hand in hand with Mr. Big Company, Mr. Empire Builder makes his mark with in the company predominantly by having an ever increasing reporting staff, regardless of need. If he does sales, he'll want to hire lots of territory sales people to manage - even if you have nothing to sell yet (got to pre-sell you know...). If he's in marketing, he'll want to hire lots of marketing minions - even if your in development and there's nothing to promote. He'll make weird claims like marketing should really own facilities since the facilities are.....Creating and owning a large organization is the goal - unfortunately, it's at the cost of the company.
Mr. Gone Native: Every company, big and small, loves to sell to a start-up - especially those flush with VC cash. Vendors will be coming in and out of the office all day trying to close deals. And sales people use all sorts of dirty tricks (they're heartless I tell you!) to do so - fancy dinners, baseball tickets, etc. The whole idea is to get into a personal relationship with the decision maker, because saying no to someone you have a relationship with becomes that much harder. Mr. Gone Native is a sucker for this every time. He mistakes the sales pitch for friendship and then fights hard for his friend come decision time - even at the expense of the Company.
Mr. Insecure: One of the best parts about working at a start-up is that everything is new. As a result, most of the time you get to make decisions that are above your pay-grade, because no one else is there to make them. But don't mistake doing a job with knowing everything about a job. They're very different things. One of the key characteristics of a successful entrepreneur is knowing when you don't know something and not being afraid to ask for help.
Mr. Insecure does not do this. He views asking questions and seeking help as signs of weakness. He'd rather make a bad decision on his own than a good one with help. Obviously, this is not a good thing. The tough part about Mr. Insecure is that he's at times tough to spot. Since he doesn't want people to know his weaknesses (and we all have them) he's very adept at talking out of his you know what. It takes time to sift through the BS and figure out what's happening. Hopefully, by the time you do it, it's not to late.
Mr. Loyalty: Is it better ot be loyal to your co-workers or the company? Say you recruited someone in from another job - they've been working with you for a while and its just clear that they're not working out for any number of reasons? Firing them or demoting them to a proper level is the right answer for the company - easy one, right? Not for Mr. Loyalty. He is loyal to the person, not the organization and thus lets the weak link bring everyone down. Cold-heartedness is a trait of a successful entrepreneur.
Fonzie: That's right. Arthur Fonzarelli. The Fonz. No, no - it's not what you're thinking. Folks who ride motorcycles and wear leather jackets are fine. (And bonus points if they can turn on a juke box with a quick smack.) Fonzie is not welcome in a start-up because he was/ is incapable of uttering the following sentence: I was wrong. (I was wrrrr.....was all the fonz could muster).
All start-ups have one think in common - mistakes are made. Identifying them, owning up to them and moving on is what separates many of the successful ones from many of the failures. The Fonz can't do this. He'd rather bring down the entire organization that admit he made a mistake. So stay away from Fonzie - Ralph and Potsie too, but that's another blog post.
Mr. Needs A Hug. A smooth running start-up is like a well oiled machine - lots of parts moving simultaneously, independently and interdependently. Everyone within the company needs to be able to rely on the other to do his or her job. There is an expectation of competence. Now with that, not every job is going to garner the limelight. If engineering is releases a kick ass product, everyone in the company celebrates. When finance successfully closes the books for the month - usually no champagne.
Mr. Need a Hug's role, while important, is usually in the non-celebratory camp. Thus prompting Mr. Need A hug to, well, need a hug. Or at least a pat on the back. The majority of his or her day is spent making sure everyone in the company knows how important their job is, how good they do it - and, unfortunately, usually how they succeed at it in spite of (as opposed to because of) their co-workers. The real problem with Mr. Need a Hug is that one hug won't do it - they need lots of hugs. Regularly. It's never ending and they never seem happy.
So there you have it - 7 people to try to avoid when you are choosing your new family. There are plenty of others - Mr. Micromanager, Mr. Platitude, Mr. Lie on his Resume, etc., etc. but we all know to stay away from those folks.
Next time I'll post on some folks you DO want in your start-up.