How to Survive a Startup - by Jill Ram
April 20, 2011
Let’s focus on early-stage start-ups.
If you join in the early stage, remember this: Be wary of being the first in the role or in taking over the founder’s area of expertise. Some founders have a sales background, some marketing, some finance. Whatever his “baby” is, you will be under much more scrutiny if you are hired as his “replacement”. If you’re the first executive in the given role, make sure you understand what the founder thinks he expects of you, and forget about what you know you can and should accomplish – for now.
Reminder two: The founder is always right (especially true if you have been hired to take over the area of the business that he normally runs). Don’t argue endlessly. I’m not saying your ideas are wrong; I’m just saying that many of them won’t be adopted until the founder sees what you see. You may think you have been hired for your experience, your crystal ball, if you will, but it doesn’t matter what you see in that ball. You may know, emphatically, that some of the decisions being made are the wrong ones, but my advice to you is to go with it. The only way to survive is to get on the bus. Standing in front of it trying to get it to go left or right will only get you run over. It will be hard to watch the bus veer off course. Really hard. But you have to let it go there and end up in the wrong place. I know, you think you were hired to prevent that from happening. You were; just not the first time.
Hopefully, the bus will only be one stop short of where you thought it should be headed. Maybe it will end up in a completely wrong neighbourhood. But it has to go there for the founder to realize it was the wrong direction. He needs his own “aha” moment. That’s when it will click for him. And that’s where you come in. That’s when he’ll start trusting your crystal ball and you’ll be allowed to put one finger on the steering wheel.
There are endless analogies to better understand this concept. Here’s a simple one. Your friend’s wedding is about to take place and you know he’s choosing the wrong person. But he doesn’t see it yet. There’s nothing you can do to get him to see it, especially if he doesn’t want to. And why would he? It’s been working for him. Do you abandon the friendship? Of course not. You support his decisions and stand by him as he embarks on his journey. And when he has his “aha” moment and realizes what you’ve known all along, that’s your cue to step in. Not to say “I told you so”, but to help get him back on track.
Same thing with a true start-up. Be there for them. Don’t sit there helplessly and wait for the accident to happen. Support the decisions that they think are right. Remember, it’s those exact decisions that got them this far. Your challenge is getting them to see that it’s not the thing that’s going to get them to tomorrow. But that doesn’t mean coming in with an axe and chopping out the rotting wood. Remember that it’s not completely rotten yet and it’s still acting as the foundation.
The question is whether or not you are able to support the founder’s decisions without compromising yourself in the process. If following his path leads you to doubt yourself or be continually discouraged, maybe it’s too early in the game for you. After all, you need to feel like you have some worth; that something you are doing is making a difference. Only you can decide how much patience you have.
With a true start-up, you will find yourself going through these stages:
1. Exuberance and passion – at the excitement of being a part of something so dynamic and exciting
2. Frustration – at the things that aren’t done efficiently or correctly
3. Excitement – at the idea of how much opportunity there is to help change these things
4. Discouragement – at how those opportunities are being overlooked and how your skill set is being completely underutilized. What are you doing there?
This is when you have a decision to make. Here’s how to make it:
Ask yourself these questions: Have you seen any change since you started? Has anything new been adopted or is the founder stuck on doing everything the same old way? Is the company hiring the right people? People who are going to bring something new to the table. Were they hired to challenge the status quo or embrace it? Of all the decisions that are being made, do you agree with at least some of them? Are your values fundamentally the same as or directly opposed to the founder’s? Do you respect the founder? If you answered yes to most of these (where there were options provided, the “yes” would be to the first part of the question), you may want to stick it out, as you might be asked to use your crystal ball in the near future.
Remember that founders are concerned with one thing at the outset. The top line. So are their investors. Chances are, you will be asked to do things that, although they increase the top line, they may impact the bottom line (and the culture) negatively. This will be evident to you; not so evident to the founder who’s fixated on revenue. The investors will see your crystal ball as valuable, but only once they get their claws in the business – once they really start focusing on profitability. That will come soon enough.
The best advice is the following:
1. Forget everything you learned working for a bigger company – for now. It won’t come in handy for quite some time.
2. Study your environment. Don’t come in thinking you know it all. What worked at your last company might not work in your new one. Anyone can make observations and identify what’s missing. But you weren’t hired as a consultant. You were hired to help take the company to the next level, by implementing the right things at the right time. Heeding that latter part will be the difference between success and failure.
3. Don’t knock what the company was built on. You will alienate yourself and be the cause of your own failure.
4. Do what is asked of you, even if you don’t support it 100%. It may be a flawed course of action, but it’s likely not going to destroy the company. It hasn’t thus far.
5. Get things done. Don’t take too much time doing it the “right” way. If you can get it done the right way without it taking longer than it would take to do it the flawed way, fine. But if doing it the right way means inertia, you will quickly cripple the company. If you accomplish nothing, you are useless to the company. The trick is to find a way to remove the rotten wood and simultaneously replace it with cement, all the while achieving the founder’s goals and the ones you were ultimately hired to achieve, even if unbeknownst to the founder. Balance is key.
6. Pick your battles. Fight a good fight but know when to waive the white flag. The sooner you are able to gauge if something will be well-received or not, the better off you will be.
7. Be agile. Be able to change directions on a dime.
8. Listen. Really listen.
9. Have patience.
10. And last but not least, do your daily affirmations. You’ll need to remind yourself that you’re good. No one else will.
About the author
Jill Ram is a Montreal-based Senior Tech Sector executive who specializes in cultural development and change management.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org