The aspiration of most technology startups is to grow from virtually nothing to a billion dollar company. But, if you examine the typical billion dollar company you find something that looks very much like a factory. People are divided up into divisions, departments and job descriptions. And, crossing these boundaries are well defined processes and support systems that sew up the pieces into a business value chain that drives revenue. Lot’s of round pegs and round holes for them to fit into that in the best companies provide a vehicle for talented individuals to drive superior organizational performance and a safety net for weaker performers to ensure that things keep humming along no matter what. In other words: NOT a startup.
Getting from here to there is like growing a fully functioning human being with a brain, a heart, lungs, legs, arms, and fingers from a single, blank zygote. In nature, this miracle is accomplished through stem cells. Which according to Wikipedia are “characterized by the ability to renew themselves…differentiating into a diverse range of specialized cell types.” I think I would be hard pressed to come up with a better analogy of what it takes to be a successful startup executive. I say this for two reasons. First, it is the job of executive management to build the organization, processes, and jobs that will be the billion dollar company. Second, until you achieve the revenue growth that will allow you to pay for all these offices, people, and systems—-you must do it yourself.
One hat is not enough for successful startup executives. Startup executives must demonstrate breadth across functions and depth within roles. In it’s simplest form, breadth across functions means understanding the basics of the functions adjacent to yours, so that you can work with other managers to define the organization, processes and systems that will enable the business to scale. In the extreme, you may find yourself managing multiple areas, simply because there is more work to be done than there are people to do it. Depth within roles means being able to actually do the work, not just manage it. I like to call this the McDonald’s requirement. If the employee doesn’t show up, the manager works the counter..or the fryer …or the drive-thru…or whatever it takes to keep the doors open. And, you won’t always have the luxury of hiring highly paid, senior staff. So, you must be an effective mentor to grow them from more junior staff. I always look for these characteristics when hiring executives. In addition to the primary functional skills, I assign extra credit for multi-functional, general management and entrepreneurial experience.
As this post implies, when you work at a startup you often find your attention pulled back and forth between the highest levels of company vision and business strategy to the lowest levels of operational detail and execution. On occasion, I’ve even found that the mental gymnastics can actually give you a headache. So, in deference to this fundamental challenge of startup management, I am kicking off two new series of posts with distinctively different flavors.
Startup Business Musings which will focus on the principles that help shape a successful startup business and successful startup executives…of which this is the first. And, SaaS Marketing Tips where I’ll attempt to expand upon the SaaS Success Top Ten Do’s and Don’ts by exploring concrete, actionable ideas and examples (first post tomorrow).