A Few Quick Tips On The People Aspect of Start-Ups

3d stainless human social network and leadership

“Leadership is not about titles, positions or flowcharts. It is about one life influencing another.”

― John C. Maxwell

I was recently asked to give a talk around the people aspects of start-ups. It’s a slightly daunting topic as there are a lot of clichés around, but it is a hugely important one. Get it right and it will accelerate your business. Get it wrong and it will absorb huge amounts of emotional energy and time, and in the worst case kill your business. I have had the delight of experiencing the former and the scars from picking up the pieces when things don’t go right – that’s all part of the journey of building a business.

The recruiting dance

All to often investors and founders in the early days are attracted to cv’s (resumes) with big glitzy brand names on them. However from my experience, you should ignore the brands on a cv, certainly initially, and focus on what the individual has actually done and achieved – really getting into the detail. Working for big brands in a corporate environment, with its politics, structures and support functions, is very different to working in an early stage business where any new team member needs to be prepared to get their hands dirty with very little support.

It’s a huge cliché, but so true:

“Hire at speed and repent at your leisure”

I constantly put pressure on myself during the hiring process to make it happen faster, which sometimes was compounded by hearing that other portfolio companies from the same fund had already recruited for those spots in a shorter time frame. In one case in particular, I learnt that the supposed rock star that they had hired in record speed, had to be let go two months later…

You will doubtless be extremely keen to fill a role, to share the workload and grow faster (with indirect or direct pressure from investors). However, it will take much more of your time and emotional energy if you end up hiring the wrong person. Whilst there is never a guarantee around fit, its better to spend the time up front – after all recruiting is a dance where both sides need to be comfortable and excited.

Clear and unambiguous contracts

For all employees and contractors make sure you have contracts in place that cover off all the key “sign your life away” clauses such as IP ownership, Non Compete Clauses and that a lawyer has been over it. This also goes for sales team commission plans – where the potential for miss-interpretation is high. Where there is any doubt, include some worked scenarios.

It all sounds obvious when you are sitting reading this, but when time is tight and perhaps cash is as well, the temptation is to cut corners. Don’t. It will likely turn around and bite you, and the time and cost of sorting any mess will be high.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

I can’t emphasise this enough. You will be moving fast and so will the rest of your team. With everybody trying to push the business forward, it’s very easy to “leave people behind”. The challenge is greater if you are on-boarding new team members very regularly. You really need to make the time, and it takes a time and energy (well at least it does for me), to communicate your vision, status updates, key objectives and challenges – as well as enabling team input and feedback. Because everybody is so busy, saying things once just isn’t enough. I now reckon (as a result of some great coaching) on delivering the same message three times, in three different ways over a short period of time.

Different people are right at different stages of the journey

Some of your early team will make the whole trip, but others won’t. That includes founders and directors – the founder’s dilemma is another story entirely.

In the very early stages, individuals who can turn their hands to anything thrive and then as the business matures, more specialist or focused skills may be required. What’s more, some individuals just prefer the earlier stages of building out a business. Some will leave. Some will naturally step-up as the business grows, whilst some may thrive with coaching. For others you will have to make the tough decision to show them to the exit – in many cases their skills will be highly sought after by other businesses at an earlier stage than yours.

When people leave, celebrate them as alumni

I was pretty gutted when the first person left. We were going to change the world, so how could they abandon us? People leave for all sorts of reasons, some personal, and if you have done all you can to try and retain that individual (assuming you want to), then it’s time to celebrate their contribution. What’s more they will become alumni of your business and will very likely be key champions for you in the market place.

Culture and values are important

For some this will come naturally, others will need to carve out the time to create a culture and set of values that is unique to the business and fits with what you are trying to achieve. It impacts everything from the way you recruit, lead, manage, communicate and do business. There is no right or wrong here – what works for one business is not necessarily right for another. Once you have thought through what’s important, then really everybody in the business owns it and it will evolve – but you need to ensure you continue to shape it. Oh, and please don’t put posters of “our 1 to 10 values” on the wall! In my view, nothing deadens the senses more….

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