Being a founder inherently means serving a set of conflicting interests:
- Conquering-the-world ambitions are reduced to the Minimal Value Product (MVP) due to the budget and time-to-market constraints.
- The product is envisioned as nice and friendly but needs to be built fast to validate the product-market-fit ASAP.
- The marketers and biz devs are pushing for anticipated features, but devs are reserving time for bug solving and technical debt.
We find ourselves continuously optimizing the well-known price-speed-quality triangle. It takes tremendous mental effort and our employees, paid from the humbly raised precious funds, our people, picked so carefully — don’t seem to share the urgency. We might become mad, annoyed, sleepless, trying to contain our own aggression and these vibes start to project outwards affecting the mental climate of your powerhouse which might be already bursting at all seams.
A short deviation from the subject…
Let me share a personal story: once, I’ve hired a very talented developer who seemingly became less concentrated and deficient after a year of hard work (by that I mean overnight hours, weekends and other way-of-the-line signs of the dream employee). A few months of his new attitude brought me out of balance and my questions became more toxic and hostile. His motivation and my attitude quickly went through a downward spiral without a single benefit.
After a new year vacation, I took a deep breath and switched to the long-forgotten constructive dialog flavored with positive reinforcements. Had he ever gotten back to his previous heroic level of attitude? No. But mental distractions were immediately eliminated, it felt great to work back to back again and my colleague productively accomplished tons of hard tasks and declined many job offers for about a year since then. Even now he helps to maintain the system once in a while.
Conclusion: we might not always get what we want but harmony always leads to great cooperation in the long run.
What should we not do? 🙈 🙉 🙊
Remember: your employees are probably not made of entrepreneur materials (otherwise they would join as co-founders for equity, right?). They won’t take the risk to live of life savings or living in a hut, they’d rather prefer to do what they know to do really well: develop, market, QA, design for a stable salary. Therefore, their effort is not and should not be invested into taking part to figure out the political strategy for directors’ board meetings or fundraising, incorporation intricacies, preparing monthly reports for investors etc — all that stress is your pill to take! Maintain a healthy working climate in your startup by opening up about the stressful issues when they show cМаuriosity.
In short: whenever you feel the seeming unfairness and deficiencies from your team’s side, take a deep breath, contain the bad feelings and do your best not to cross the toxic line.
How is that helpful? There are plenty of things that when done right will increase the efficacy of your team. A few years ago I’ve managed to raise the team velocity by 33% during 2 biweekly sprints, delivering features that were anticipated for quarters. Most recently, I advised a startup that was struggling to deliver MVP for 6 months: in 4-6 weeks each of the 4 teams released at least one version of their products to the market.
What should we actually do? 🧠 🧠 🧠
Make every day feel like a new episode in a good TV series: every actor should fall asleep with a feeling of accomplishment and wake up being eager to watch the next chapter. How do we achieve that?
- Understand the typical software product development cycle. The first stage of every feature is always quick and dirty, full of bugs, technical deficiencies and miscommunication. That’s OK! The quality is the outcome of the invested effort, yet waiting for the first version for too long would lengthen the feedback loop and, therefore, would highen the risks. Find the right words to encourage the team.
- Replace guilt and fear with inspiration and appreciation. Questions like “Why are we still having bugs?” or “Why does everything go so slow?” are toxic and make people feel small and incompetent. Ask “What were the major roadblocks?” or “Is there a way we could do it faster next time?”, encouraging self-ignited learning and continuous improvement.
- If you are really, really missing the update about a specific bug or status find the right time and way to ask the question. Context switches are expensive. One question coming from someone in an executive position might defocus a developer for a day thinking “What did I do wrong and why is he asking?”. Some naturally-optimistic subordinates will subconsciously choose to answer something nice, trying make their boss happy. Remember: they might not know the global picture or might not be aware what you will do relying on their answer (e.g. notifying customers, announcing the next release — it might all be way too early). Beware: you might hear what you’d like to hear, without knowing the actual risks. To keep yourself updated, better set and follow the company processes like coming to daily syncs or asking relevant team leaders who are expected to translate the detailed view to executive abstracts. Use weekly retrospectives to trigger strategic discussions.
- Know what seagull management is and do your best to not be associated with the style.
- Avoid frequent reprioritization and orders given behind the back of the middle management directly to their subordinates. At one geographically-diverse startup I’ve worked with, business executives were continuously contacting devs and designers asking to add features that were not a part of the sprint. These out-of-bound features were being continuously reprioritized. When you think you hack a process, you hack your own process.
- The sportive drive helps to accomplish hard missions in a limited time, unhealthy pressure does not. Know when to stop pushing. Be mindful about keeping your team on the right side of the sanity line or expect motivation loss, burnout and headcount turnover with repercussions from things said about your company.
- Eliminate negative feedback and always stay constructive. Sadly, had examples of executives characterizing their subordinates’ labor results as “embarrassing”. Instead, phrases like “We don’t have much time and we need to find the way to scale our product to tens of thousands of requests per second, what would be the right way to achieve it?” will go a long way. Be a developing manager, remember that the purpose of your feedback is nothing but to help your people grow.
- Do everything to let your team a sense of security and belonging. Your personal charisma, cool branded merch, non-generic birthday presents, week closing meetings, non-boilerplate teambuilding events (even when on Zoom or Hangouts) — regularly find the ways to build and encourage the spirit, lay back and see the fruits of their loyalty.
- Last but not least, when you feel the need for a helping hand, hire the right specialists to help build your lean startup and to tailor the well-known agile processes to the specific needs of your startup.
Some of the items above might appear trivial, yet I’ve seen enough during my advisory practice to bring this article to light. Leaders and entrepreneurs know how to fundraise or secure significant business cooperations or how to become a public face of the company, but their inbound communication can be improved, they still lack the recognition that the people hired are among the company's greatest assets. Who would like to work with a founder who projects the feeling that everyone else is easily replaceable?
To sum it all up ✅
- When the anger comes, take a deep breath and re-read the article.
- Nurture, not torture!
- You are lucky to have such a great team, you are a part of that team!
- Do have FUN!