Startups Need Starters
Posted by Bob Warfield on April 13, 2010
Just a short post for my Helpstream Learnings series today:
Reading 37Signals latest book, “Rework“, has crystalized a few thoughts I’d been having since Helpstream. It’s a great read, BTW, if you haven’t already checked it out.
This particular post is about Starters. The authors of Rework want to drop the term “entrepreneur” and switch to “Starter”, but I think Starter needs an even broader meaning to fit an even more important role. Sure, every startup will have its designated entrepreneur in the form of its founder(s) and hopefully its leadership. The thing is, everyone needs to be a Starter in a startup. Starters are people who can get something done without other people. They’re the leaves of the value creation tree. It sounds funny to think of it that way, and many will ask, “Don’t you just mean employees?” The answer is, “No, I don’t just mean employees, and that’s the essential point.”
Traditional business, particularly large organizations, often think of employees and managers. The employees do the work and the managers manage the employees. But a startup can’t afford this luxury. Managers need to be able to do work too. A manager that can get something done without other people is a Starter, and these are the types of managers you want in your startup. That’s not to say they can’t manage. Startups are tough environments. You want the people who can do it all. I’m convinced this is one of the big problems with hiring Big Company people into Startups. They’re probably excellent managers, perhaps better than the average Startup manager. But very often they are not startups. Take away their staff and consultants and they don’t get anything done.
Look at span of control. A good manager can optimally handle 7 to 9 reports, and a great manager can handle more. But a startup may consist of only 15 people in its early stages. The CEO should have more reports than anyone, and even then it won’t amount 9 if they have very many VP’s. The VP’s may have 2 or 3. A pure manager with 2 reports can’t accomplish much. Instead of charging that overhead against 7 to 9, it is charged against 2 or 3. Suddenly that is a very expensive executive indeed. And what if a VP has no reports and isn’t a Starter? Do they just not get anything done? Startups never have enough people, money or other resources. You need all the Starters you can get, and you need to minimize the overhead of professional managers until you can get big enough to have something for them to do.
Hire Starters who are great Managers. Whatever it is they manage, make sure they can contribute something more that doesn’t require other people. Make sure it is something important. Can your VP of Sales manage your CRM system and run all the reports? Can they make all the sales calls until you’re big enough to keep a full-time Account Executive fed? Can your VP of Marketing write the marketing content? Can they blog, write ads, do copy for the web site, and email blasts for Marketo? Ours could at Helpstream, and it made a huge difference. We ran leaner, we got more done, and we were better aligned in our purpose.