Joe Lennon

@joelennon

Shit Startups Do: Episode 2

Building a team

So you’ve decided to start a company. You have a super idea, a monstrous market and you’ve just managed to convince a few people with more money than sense to give you a quarter of a million bucks to spend chasing your dreams.

Photo credit: Quino Al / Unsplash

What will you do with the money, they ask. Shit, what will we do with the money, you start to think. You were so busy daydreaming that you were going to launch a product, get millions of users and make a fuck ton of money that you completely forgot to think about exactly how you’d actually do so.

So you rush to think about the gaps in your founding team. These gaps are almost always either product people or sales and marketing people. Two groups of people who will empty your bank accounts faster than you can blink. Engineers that can build your product will cost a fortune in wages and AWS invoices. Not to mind the $5k in gear they’ll demand, as well as back-friendly chairs, standing desks and all sorts of other precious fuckwittery. You’ll probably need a games room too for the 75% of the time they spend outside of their “flow” just so they are happy for the short time they actually are productive.

Hiring sales people is a wonderful experience. Even the shittiest of sales people are good at selling one thing – themselves. So chances are you’ll end up with some idiot who will rack up air miles so fast you’ll smell the carbon footprint they leave a continent away. And when they don’t reach their targets you’ll get some spiel about how the product just isn’t there yet. To which the product team will tell you that the sales people are trying to fuck up the overall vision by actually landing real customers and revenue. How dare they stray from our goal of making the world a better place through web-based feline broadcasting!

GIF credit: Oisin Lunny

And don’t get me started on marketing. While their salaries aren’t too bad and they don’t typically get commission, they’ll have no problem making you broke by spending a few grand a month on HubSpot, Intercom, Salesforce and a bunch of other tools that do their job for them. Not content with paying through the nose for products that should cost way less than they do, they’ll spend another few thousand dollars getting training over the phone from someone who knows about as much about the product as they do themselves. And of course they’ll then need to spend at least $10–20k getting some Web design agency to butcher WordPress into what they think is a pretty website with janky parallax scrolling, 25 megabyte background videos and ensuring every visitor leaves fucking infuriated with the giant modal overlay you popped up just as they started to read the regurgitated bullshit content marketing your employee decided to paraphrase.

At the end of the day you’ll be left scratching your head wondering what the fuck you were doing hiring all these people in the first place. You remember some notion you had that building a team would free you up to do important stuff, like rearranging your PowerPoint deck for the ninth time this week based on the grilling you got at your last investment pitch. Or attending some important networking event where you get to meet not customers but other people just like you, so you can talk shit and make yourself feel important.

Meme source: Entrpreneurship Memes on Pinterest

Worse still, you won’t even have time to do all this founder hobnobbing anymore because you’ll be so caught up in meetings and the most time consuming job of all – managing people. That shithot developer you hired hoping she’d be CTO material tells you she needs 2 front end developers, 2 back end, 1 designer, 1 devops and 2 testers just to get a minimum viable product. Oh and by the way it’ll take at least 18 months to get you something that’s ready for production. Meanwhile your sales director is looking to hire teams for inside, outside and upside down sales. When you casually suggest that he go out and try to pitch himself the response is a look of horror as if you’ve just asked him to clean a toilet.

As all of this goes down you’re finding yourself getting overwhelmed with money issues and keeping track of the books. So you go out looking for a CFO. You cleverly call the role a Financial Controller position so you can pay the successful candidate half the salary they deserve. You find someone who meets the bill, and they come in and like any accountant spend most of their day unloading a metric ton of misery on your desk. That 18 months runway you thought you had from the last investment round? Yeah, more like 8 months. Oh, and that’s including the 6 months already gone. Time for Series A already? Yeah, good luck with that – I’m sure Goliath VC are going to be so impressed with your ridiculously shitty sales numbers.

So here you are with a $1m/year payroll, no product of any consequence, a small number of miserably unhappy customers and you’re wondering what in the name of holy fuck everybody you hired actually does. As far as you can see, their sole purpose in life is to make your life a living hell. To their credit, they are absolutely fucking brilliant at that aspect of their job.

You’re left thinking that maybe you should have just done the unthinkable – maybe you should have just done some of this shit yourself.

Epilogue

We all know the importance of a great team in the success of a company – but all too often we rush to put a team in place too early. There seems to be this mental block founders have when it comes to the cost/benefit of hiring people to do tasks in a company. On paper, it makes more sense that more hands will get more work done – when in reality it often slows things down considerably.

Someone once told me (and as a typical first time founder I didn’t listen) that there are two things that should always be true when you hire people:

  1. You have a full and accurate picture of what the person you are hiring will do. Typically you are so busy and your day is so full that you don’t have a choice but to give some of your tasks to someone else. If you find yourself trying to come up with a plan for someone’s job, you’re doing it wrong.
  2. You strive to hire people who are better than you are at their job. In the early days of a startup, being a mentor will be a huge drain on your time. You’re running a company, not a University. I’m a huge believer of the “teach someone to fish” philosophy, but when you’re just starting out is not the time to follow this – chances are you won’t survive long enough to see the fruits of your investment.

A great team can achieve great things. But building a great team takes time, patience and a strong gut feel about people. If you settle for just a good or average team, expect the results you get from them to be just good or average. A big wage bill will make the clock tick much faster, so make sure it counts.

About the Series

This is a series of tongue in cheek posts about some of the common fuck-ups startups make during their typically short existence. It’s inspired by a combination of my own experience and monumental cockups as well as those I’ve seen in other startups along the way.

Past episodes:

  1. Spending too much money on hosting

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