Cut & Paste doesn’t work for startups!
One of the worst pieces of advice you can get when building a startup is the classic “Airbnb [or Apple or Google] does it this way, so should you”. Its incredible how many investors give that advice thinking you can retrofit substance to process. If it were only that easy to cut & paste there wouldn’t be any figuring out to do would there? Why is it then that first time entrepreneurs have a higher success rate? Because they are hungry, and their lack of knowledge is the best weapon. They are not afraid to ask the dumb questions. They think fresh and solve problems. Ignorance is bliss.
Last week I met up with two different first time entrepreneurs, super smart founders and CEOs both of venture backed business. We went for a beer to catch up and share war stories. PeoplePerHour is a little further ahead in the journey so I had the benefit to reflect on some of my many screw ups and do most of the talking while they enjoyed their beer!
We discussed how we manage our time, our team, how we handle meetings . What we do and don’t get involved in. I was not amazed that each of them were making the same mistake (which I also made many times). One said to me “our VCs said to me recently that Apple’s leadership team spends 3 hours just ‘talking about random stuff’ on Monday mornings… so we should do the same. It fosters creativity and innovation lalala.” My instant reaction was “are you out of your fucking mind?” Firstly, there is a slight difference between a ten person startup and a company like Apple. Maybe at their scale talking casually about ‘random stuff’ with no agenda works because a) someone else is doing the hard work of executing and b) they may be having a good problem to have which is – where the heck to we invest our cash mountain next? Do you really think that when Apple started in a garage Woz and Steve Jobs just sat in a room talking about random shit waiting for a business to get built?
The other Founder I met up with similarly was spending all this time doing X because his investors told him that it worked for another portfolio company. That’s absurd logic. You will find tonnes of things that work for what are seemingly similar businesses but don’t work for you. The devil is in the detail. All that matters is what YOUR business needs NOW. That may change tomorrow. You can’t retrofit substance to process. You figure out what builds and sells the shit and fit process around it. And in a fast growing startup you probably need to rethink that every other month if not sooner.
At PeoplePerHour we went through this cycle multiple times. A process of holding a management meeting with everyone round the table sharing what they’re each doing worked well. Until it stopped working! So we changed it. Why did it stop working? Because we HAD to go from a phase where we needed to innovate and hence conversation was necessary, to a phase where it was all about straight line execution. In that phase, you need as little conversation as possible. You just need to roll up your cuffs and execute. You’ve figured out how to climb the mountain, so now you need to shut up and start climbing!
I can imagine a board meeting where some investor will say “Oouuuh that’s dangerous. We saw Company X do that and they failed”. Well maybe company X actually needed chit chat. Or maybe they lacked good executors. Or maybe their chat stank. Who knows. It’s irrelevant. All that matters is what YOUR business needs RIGHT NOW.
I’ve seen the same in people being ‘coached’ by a bunch of morons who never run a fruit stand let alone a company, on what they should and shouldn’t do. Advice like “If Larry Page interviews everyone at Google so should you”. Firstly that’s BS. If Larry Page interviewed everyone at Google he wouldn’t do anything else. And he will have had to have found a way to extend a 24 hour day, which I’m pretty sure he would have been compelled to share with the rest of us mortals. After all his mantra is ‘Do no evil’ right?
I fell victim of that stupid advice at the start. My day was swamped with interviews and meetings that I had very little value to add in the end. There’s always SOME value. But there’s also an opportunity cost. As a founder your time is probably the most important asset to the business. You should guard it ferociously. Now I leave the tech interviewing to my Head of Eng. I don’t interview Engineers even though they are the nucleus of our company. Why? Because a) he does a much better job than I could at that , and b) why should I ? That’s what I have him for! Why hire a cook and hang around in the kitchen cooking with her? Hence the expression “too many cooks in the kitchen” !
Which is why I see unfortunately so many startup founders do WAY WAY WAAAAAY too much. Another idiotic piece of advice. “As a founder you should do everything at first in order to know how it works”. Or “you cant manage people if you haven’t done it yourself first”. Really? Well the most successful entrepreneur in the UK, and amongst the top in the world, Richard Branson, never managed any of his businesses (and never raised any VC money, which may be why!). He’s a master delegator. On this perverted logic he should have learnt how to fly a plane before starting an airline so he can manage pilots! WTF?
There is such a jungle of bad advice, its appalling and frightening. Even more so in a world where the average age of startup Founders is dropping and their ability or confidence to ruthlessly put their foot done and tell these idiots who couldn’t manage a blind donkey if their life depended on it, to put a sock in it, is declining with it.
So stand your ground. Use common sense, and figure out what works for YOU. If you get better results jumping up and down in meetings doing splits so be it. I’m sure someone’s done it in history. And if not great- you may be the first. Who cares. If it works it works. Maybe some idiot in the future will tell some poor fella “one technique we’ve seen improves effectiveness of meetings is jumping up and down and doing splits. You should try it”
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