Startup Culture Misfits

I built my early stage startup with a few close friends who come from big company backgrounds. They are brilliant and successful, but are plodding, methodical, and insist on hiring huge teams to do the work (which I cannot afford) and insist on building long-term quarterly product release plans when I need speed, rapid iteration, and continuous daily deployment. They also have unrealistic expectations of the effort involved in a startup and what salary and benefits I can offer. Do I just start over with a new team?

I have already discussed the risks of working with friends in previous posts and lessons, so I will not repeat those points here.

Startups vary dramatically from established companies. The hours are longer and more unpredictable, while the pay and benefits are worse. Indeed, when founders ask investors for a 401(k) plan, the common (printable) response is, “Your retirement is your founder’s stock.” The rigid public company imperative for quarterly and yearly certainty is both wildly unrealistic and undermines the crucial flexibility of Lean Startup tools. Startups do not have well-developed processes, generous expense accounts, or teams of minions to do work — everyone is an individual contributor and a master of all tasks in the beginning.

I have seen many public company stars drown in the startup tsunami and others thrive. If business is taught at all, it often assumes a steady state system. You are, in effect, re-educating your employees. I tend to err on the side of doing what you can to make a save, by helping someone adapt to your culture.

Have them learn about Lean, Design Thinking, Kanban, Agile, and continuous deployment. Make them read books and watch courses about best startup practices. Run rapid experiments to test features and see if they can adapt. Pivot if you need to. Have your investors (if you have any) sit down with the team and discuss expectations. Find mentors of other successful entrepreneurs in your network who can help coach them. Study examples of other successful startups in your field.

In the end, it is your company and you need to set clear expectations about what you need to succeed. If you have tried the steps above and it is not working, it is time to move on. If you have set up your company and your employment agreements correctly (including IP assignments and stock vesting), you will be replacing your team, but not starting your company over. The startup sin is not hiring incorrectly, it is failing to upgrade once you understand you do not have an A player in a role after coaching has failed.

See also: Spouses and Friends As C-Founders and 3.103: Founders and Early Talent

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