Every startup that achieves momentum, say even ten people or more, begins to slot its talent into appropriate specializations. Internally the job boundaries may be a bit fuzzy as employees help each other, but when you send a team out into the world for sales, training, support, a trade show, or any form of gathering, you should make some careful decisions as to the mix of that team. At this writing I’ve just returned from an intense prospect/vendor matchmaking conference, where there were many examples of the importance of this point.
We sent along two senior execs. It was easy for us to have productive conversations with decision makers across the table – those who had authority and had budgets. We’ll end up with a number of projects from those sources. But, we also encountered plenty of junior staffers traveling alone who had extremely narrowly defined jobs and who would have to search through their own organizational units for a person who might comprehend and act on what we described. Several of them were new to their companies with very little grasp of the priorities. One explained in detail some interesting ideas, but when I asked enough questions I learned her well-known retail employer had filed for liquidation earlier in the week. Quite a few had already quit their jobs and were prospecting for new ones on their old company’s nickel. I flushed out one of those, again from a very large retailer, when I mentioned I was just in a meeting with his chairman and would make mention of him. Oops. I pictured an email like this: “Hey, Joe, this guy who’s representing your company here is quitting his job and may not have told you. Who else should we seek out.” It’s a pretty small world, and I was not bluffing.
Obviously asking questions and listening was the first order of business in every session of this event. I have to hand it to the organizers for doing a really good job in curating both sides of the tables and doing their best to make sure the right folks were talking with each other. However, we discussed among ourselves afterwards that perhaps at the next one of these gigs we should take along a more representative mix of our company. Many people earlier in their careers and newer to their employers are not comfortable talking above their station. I’m not referring to social status, but when you learn you are conversing with someone who is known by the C-suite of your giant company, you probably will be much more guarded than when you are talking with a problem solver who appears to be at about your career level. As has been said countless times, startups are a team activity, and when that team goes on the road, you need to pay as much attention to matchups as does a football coach evaluating every position on his depth chart against the scouting report on the next opponent. It’s just as risky to overpower a meeting as it is to leave it to the practice squad. When it’s feasible, diversify and give yourself a better chance of forming business relationships at all levels.
I’ve seen this in spades in the life sciences startups I have helped in the last three years. There’s an obvious and well deserved doctor-to-doctor respect principle, and when there’s any clinical discussion on the agenda, both sides need to be represented by people who know the science and the motivations of the clinicians. All the business rules are different in that sector, as you are well aware. And, you almost always need a highly specialized lawyer close at hand to navigate the regulatory shoals. You can make what looks like a relatively small mistake in, say, a routine software contract, and clean it up later. In contracts involving money and medicine, that mistake can put you in jail. There’s plenty of guesswork in medicine, particularly in the two areas I have been engaged – oncology and behavioral health – but one should never be making those guesses without the proper credentials.
Of course you can only field a role-diversified team if you have hired with that in mind. I suffered through the college admissions process over the last year with a friend, and I’ve been party to discussions about that at GA Tech board meetings. GT had more than a dozen applications for every slot in the freshman class for Fall 2017, and, generally speaking, they all were very well qualified by their test scores, grades, mixture of AP classes, and extracurricular resumes. (Alumni interference is strictly prohibited, so please don’t ask me to help your child! I’ll be thankful if my own grandson gets admitted in about 16 years.) It thus falls to a hard-working admission staff to carefully consider all the recommendation letters and essays to assemble the freshman class that appears to be the optimal “community.” They make a lot of qualitative judgments to create a group with much to learn from each other in addition to what they are formally taught. When you make hiring decisions, particularly for the most technical positions where prior work can be evaluated and tests can be given, you too may have multiple qualified candidates for the tasks at hand. And, you too are in a position to create a community that will make your company stronger.
Culture is the overworked term for that. Every startup takes on the culture of its founding team, as we’ve all witnessed in a negative way with some of the Valley’s high profile unicorns. Free beer is not a culture, although I must admit that perk has almost become a basic right and not just a privilege, in no small part thanks to the proliferation of incubators with that amenity. (free Scotch, on the other hand … just kidding) I started a number of companies before culture became a “thing” in the 1980’s. Prior to that it was organizational climate. Whatever the name, you get to decide who works with you from the willing candidates available, and you won’t go far if they are all clones of your behavior and skill set. Learning flows up as well as down the chain of command as long as you are a skilled listener. The more disparate your crew the more adaptable it should be as your business evolves. And, when you need to dispatch missions to the outside world, you should be able to mix and match well for any given objective.
Through your decisions as a startup founder you have the power to establish appropriate authority in your chosen market. I’m talking substance and not smoke and mirrors. You can do big deals if you have created a product of value, conduct yourself as a big deal person, and back that up with the team that matches the moment. In the long ago I spent about 6 months helping the San Fernando Valley disc drive maker Pertec proliferate the Altair brand across the country after they bought MITS from Ed Roberts. I was responsible for everything east of the Sierra Nevada range. My long time readers will recall some of the stories of that era, but one that bears repeating and is very much on point is my interaction with our dealer in Philadelphia. I had enough phone time with that guy to deduce he probably wasn’t worth a visit, even though I was in the Northeast frequently. He complained to Ryal Poppa, the imperious chairman of Pertec, that I was not treating him well, so, naturally, I soon found myself in Philly. If there were smart phones then, I would show you a picture of two offices in a dank basement with Fortune 500 quality inscriptions on the doors, one of which was Chief Executive Officer. They had no inventory and no customers. They didn’t even have a dog to qualify them in the two-man-and-a-dog category. But, I was gracious, and that was just part of my job. I have no idea what happened to them thereafter. I think you get my drift from this counter example to the point I’m making.
Allow me please to remind you that as a founder you get to make a lot of decisions with respect to your spare time. You will go much farther in your career and any business endeavor if you establish yourself in places where you become known and liked for your good qualities. That could be any kind of volunteer organization. It can be the sport you choose, or the social club you join. It can be a church. I closed a deal with Jack Nicklaus Productions for my CD-ROM company in the early nineties because, without asking me, they checked me out through Charlie Yates, then the Secretary of Augusta National. He told them we often sat on the same pew at our Episcopal Church and he thought highly of me. What are the odds of that? I profess to attend church for the right reasons, and I picked that particular church only because of my son’s experience at their Vacation Bible School. You just never know when and where the dots will get connected for you. No, I will not reference “mysterious ways” here, but I’ll gladly accept them.
Back to the title of this essay, you should stay in your lane. But, I hope the major takeaway is that as a founder you get to decide which lane is yours.