Anshul Khandelwal

@anshulkhandelwal

Firing is hard but important. And how to do it well.

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Running a startup is hard. But there are still harder things inside it. One of them is Firing! When you are a small team, say, 5–7 people, you are like family and pushing someone out of family is very hard. I had to do this, and I did my best to avoid it as much as I could, for as long as I could. The result was frustrating, I could not sleep at night, not getting value out of your investment in a startup was hurting, it was heavy on my heart. For long, I was finding excuses that it might work, or maybe I need to improve to make my team work better. I tried but it did not work. In this post I want to talk about the psychological pressure I had gone through, financial implications and a feeling of continuous dissatisfaction I had been through and the framework I created to deal with situations like this in future.

Ownership

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When you are working in a startup a lot of times we end up hiring too quickly. I am not sure if I had done this mistake. But I did think about it. With this employee the issues were varied. He was good technically but her involvement with the company was less. I have seen startups where the teams (including employees) are totally invested in the company. They have a sense of ownership.

Urgency

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It is a roller coaster ride out there. And the knack is to find balance in between this ride. A sense of urgency is quite critical in a small team which is trying to be 10 x times better than anyone. It was just not there for him. He was good but slow. What we needed was great and fast. 
Both the above issues I believe can be solved if we devote more time. Startups are a place where you have to slog more hours after hours to get things done. It is not a 9–5 job, monday-friday job. A startup is a constant idea in your head which you try to achieve. I found him failing at it. I could just see he is logging fewer hours at work. Now many of you think that time logging is not the best way to access someone, I agree but it definitely shows how much you are working and your interest levels. If you are in office only for 6 hours a day, 5 days a week and even on weekends you are not checking off your work-list than simply put you, are not working. There are only 2 reasons for it firstly, either you don’t know what to do or you are busy with something else. It could be your freelancing or building your own product or some personal issue etc. In my case, I think it was the personal product thing. It is good to have this streak but you can’t do it on the company time. I don’t want to sabotage your creativity but you need to be professional and be productive. The kind of commitment a startup requires justifies the salary we pay. This was becoming a total loss.

Discipline

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I value discipline a lot. It is one of our core values. More than passion we need discipline to achieve our goals. Startups which are a high an octane place usually lack this one crucial ingredient. Maybe it is considered old fashion. But when your team grows beyond a certain number (5 in our case) you need it to get things done. Imagine you do a quick 10-minute huddle every morning to make sure everyone is on the same page and that the team is on track and there is this one person who is not there or mostly late. What does this reflect? How do other team members think about it? How will you as a founder justify it? Behaviors like these become starting points for others to follow. They should be handled immediately unlike how I did.

Code quality

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I would accept code quality was decent but when we calculated the cost per line of code it was huge. We were just burning money on this resource, and there is no justification for this.

With all these issues bothering me I talked to a lot of my friends who run startups and companies on what should I do. I read online if there are ways to manage this. Because this person is a senior, we are a small team and it would affect others- they might think the company is not going anywhere, getting someone new is very difficult and a plethora of other issues. The only advice I got was to let the person go and find a backup asap. There is no other way out. I decided I have to let him go.

Every day you go to the office, you work with your team, do fun things, eat lunch together and plan the next team outing. It becomes difficult when you know you have to fire one of them. And that others don’t know about it. I went through this phase for a couple of days. One fine day I told him. It was triggered when one of my friends called me. She runs her own startup and I told her about how I was feeling. She said to cut the cord now. I did. It was fine. He was not shocked. He took it in a nice way. He already had plans. I think he knew this was coming. Once you fire you also have to make sure your team knows about it. They should hear it from you rather than anyone else. I called my next best team member and told her about it. Her first reaction was dismay because he was a senior member. But then I explained her the nitty-gritty of the situation. How we were having productivity issues, discipline issues etcetera. By end of the conversation, she understood it was a hard but a necessary decision.

Now I am running left right and center to get a new person before he goes. But this time I have a framework to follow for the entire employee lifecycle. This framework is evolved mostly from my learnings and I hope it will help me hire the right one.

Employee Framework

Motto- To avoid firing improve hiring.

You could be desperate because you have a deadline and you need to hire. But please take a step back, calm down. Hiring a wrong fit will cost you more both financially and emotionally. You will see this in a quarter. Here is what you can do:

Prevention is better than cure.
  1. Job Description- Write a good detailed job description. We usually try to avoid this but it is very important. When you write you become clear about what you want from the new hire. Think about how her typical day will unfold. What all tasks she would need to do. How much time she will have to spend planning, prioritizing etc. Do deep dive here and write it down.
    Points- 9/10
  2. Fit- You know your company well. You know your core values. If you don’t have them make one. You know exactly how everyone functions in your existing team. What time people come in, leave, are they process oriented, talk our issues or stay silent, how do they spend their time etcetera. Your new hire should not be an aberration to this. If they will not gel with the team it will be difficult to get the things done. Practically speaking if everyone is not on time for our huddle, we end up repeating things. You will have to manage one person separately and it is a task. Avoid it. You are one team, a one whole block!
    Points- minimum 7.
  3. Technical Knowledge- They should know their stuff. If you are non- technical founder it can be difficult for you to access their knowledge. Get help. Ask someone you know to take the technical round, match it with the job description you created in step 1.
    Points- minimum 6
  4. Ability to learn on the job- This one is important. Even someone scores less in step 3 but if they can learn fast it is good. Startups are about doing innovation and you need people who can learn fast so that you can do new things. Also note that your existing team might not have the bandwidth to make them learn so make sure they can do it on their own or know how to hustle enough.
    Points- minimum 7.
  5. Team spirit- I realized that this employee was a good individual contributor. He was not a very active team member. Be sure of what you need. If you think you can convert an individual contributor into a team player think again.
    Points- 6/10
  6. Freelancing or Full time- You will find a lot of freelancers who would like to have a stint with a full-time job. They would satisfy all of the above steps. Usually, they are good with technology, learn new stuff faster because they have too. They might have also worked with larger teams on different projects. But please remember full-time job is very different from a freelancing setup. Freelancing is a different mindset. You need a lot of discipline and clarity else you might end up managing two teams. So be very careful. 
    Points- 7/10
  7. Money- You know it best. Make sure you are getting your ROI. And the basic matrix of the cost of lines per code and others are not on the higher side. 
    Points- 7/10

I think if you have an average of 7 from all the above points it would be good to go. Prevention is better than cure. So hiring right is always better than firing. And that is why I made this framework.

Other things you can do:

1. Myers Briggs test- It helps! This is what we use.

2. Try to understand the reason for leaving the current job. This is quite important. It can help you understand what are the triggers for this person.

3. Do not tolerate problems- There was a problem and I tolerated it for long. You should not. If there is a problem resolve it. Take a side. There is no other.

4. Before firing someone take a step back and think if there are any loose ends from your side. Is your product roadmap on track? Does everyone know what they have to do? And similar such questions. Try to make sure that you don’t fire a fish because it cannot climb up the tree. Startups are crazy. You juggle between tasks, there is lack of a process and things change at a breakneck speed. But make sure among all this chaos there is still a balance and a clear focus and everyone knows it. You might have to re-prioritize but that is fine.

Please share your suggestions on this framework. If you like what you have read please share.

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