Are you a Starter or a Sustainer?

Susties, represent!

Brit McGinnis
May 14, 2018 · 7 min read
Source: Pinterest.

I love being an entrepreneur. But for the longest time, I thought I could never be one.


I thought the entrepreneurs in my area were fundamentally different than me.

Whatever they were, I just… wasn’t.

I didn’t like going out every night. I wasn’t extroverted.

I craved stability in my business.

If something went wrong, I delved deep into my processes and tried to find a solution for the problem. I didn’t just hold a meeting and find a patch solution, as they seemed to.

The idea of launching something new every few months scared me. “How would anything good stay?” I thought.

The very concepts of MORE BETTER, GROWTH ALWAYS made me sweat.

I just wanted to make good things and keep making them.

More importantly, I wanted to make things that anyone could understand. Things that made sense. Things that people actually said they needed.

New things were not always good things to me.

But that seemed to be the attitude du jour for entrepreneurs. I despaired.

Then I built a business anyway. If nothing else, so that I’d never have to hitch my wagon to one of these people. No way was I comfortable with that. I’m not flighty by nature when it comes to money. So why would I ever want to work for someone that was?

Turns out, I’m not the only one.

There’s been a lot of criticism lately of the same mindset that made my newly-graduated ass nervous. The Silicon Valley founder mindset. The serial entrepreneur. The start-it-and-sell-it pro.

But what’s the alternative? It appeared to be just as bleak, but in a different way: Working a soulless job at a boring stable company forever. Be stable in my position under stable people. Accumulate money… at the cost of any and all control.

Both seemed like terrible ways to work.

And they are, at their extremes. That’s where my discomfort really lay: You need both types of workers to run a successful business. You need both versions of business mindsets to make a company that serves people effectively.

You need the people who come up with explosive ideas and are in GROWTH GROWTH GROWTH mode. You also need the people to put on the brakes and ask how in the hell are you going to pay for all that.

You need Starters and Sustainers.

First: Starters.

Source: Giphy.

The upsides to being one of these:

Starters have little to no resistance in starting projects. They plot and plan about what they can build. They are the Leslie Knopes and the Michael Scotts of the world.

Ideas are the currency of the Starter. They’re all about developing concepts and painting pictures of new things. They love solving problems. If you need something fixed by tomorrow, call a Starter!

Enthusiasm is usually no problem with these folks. They have a highly attuned sense of their own likes and dislikes.

Starters can be driven by intense ego. But introvert Starters do exist—Tom Waits is a fabulous example. He’ll put projects together and stay loyal to his vision to the very end. But he’s had enough years to finesse his vision down to a highly effective, prosocial process. And if he has to deal with writer’s block? He’ll stomp along in his studio for a few hours but he won’t make it your problem.

The concept of being “benevolently selfish” comes much more easily to Starters. They value self care and will only run themselves into the ground if they’re convinced that something is worth the hassle.

The downsides:

Source: Giphy.

Starters don’t always think things through to the end and can be resistant to feedback. If they’re smart, they’ll listen to all the people around them. If they’re not, prepare for a tantrum equivalent of a rabid snapping turtle.

Orson Welles is a great example of a Starter run amok. If you didn’t adhere to his vision, it was out with you. No questioning. Nothing.

He was also terribly unaware of his own nature. Starters with any measure of success plan around the fact that they like starting things and maybe not following through. Welles believed he could do everything. His “Unfinished Projects” list begs to differ.

Starters run amok don’t think about the implications of every action or decision. They want to make a social network, but don’t know how to monetize it.

Or they monetize it, but they do it quickly to raise capital and impress their investors.

Those quick fixes to earn money lead to a lot of outsourcing information and selling off to people who may have other motives that may not have been obvious upon a quick glance… am I making myself clear?

On Sustainers…

Source: Giphy.

The upsides to being one of these:

Sustainers are people who prefer to enhance things that are already built. They point out problems, spruce things up, and tweak systems to work better. They’re the optimization fiends. Think Gina Linetti and Varys.

Sustainers are a lot of the Invisibles in our everyday lives. They’re the people who do the work many of us don’t want to do. Day after day. Because it’s fucking necessary.

These are the people who are much more likely to work on behalf of socially motivating causes. Recruit a Sustainer who’s enthusiastic about a cause and you’ll have a loyal worker to the end.

Sustainers can have smaller egos than Starters. But this isn’t always a rule. More often, they’re much more motivated by the opinions of people that matter most to them. If your mentor, your honey and your bestie love you, fuck everyone else.

At their most empowered, Sustainers stop problems before they start. They’re the ones most likely to raise their hand and question the small details of a launch that seem iffy. They’re just as results-driven as Starters. But they’re more willing to do the uncomfortable work of questioning their own ideas.

The downsides:

Source: Giphy.

Sustainers have trouble launching things and can often put themselves last. They want stability, and sometimes that leads to timidity.

This means that Sustainers can find themselves in positions that do “good work” but don’t pay very well. Sustainers have to make sure they’re not being taken advantage of regularly. See the Thinx scandal, or talk to literally any social worker ever.

People often assume that Sustainers have no opinions. They think that Sustainers are happy to do whatever Starters say they should do, purely because Starters are more natural idea generators.

Sustainers are the “stable ones,” right? They can’t possibly have many ideas on how to do things in a new way.

Oh, but we do.

In fact, we do more than you think.

Remember the uproar when Tim Cook was named as the replacement for Steve Jobs?

Or rather, the smirks. The side-eye. The accusations of being “boring” and “uninspirational.”

Apple had replaced a Starter with a Sustainer. People were suspicious.

But then Apple’s stock went up. They went crazy-innovative with the No Headphone Jack model but also made a point of sustaining past models. You can get a new iPhone nearly every year if you want. But you’ll also get a new battery on the cheap if you so chose.

Apple wasn’t the crazy innovative San Fran baby anymore. But it became a company that served both Starters and Sustainers.

No wonder Warren Buffet (who got rich betting on Sustainer-heavy companies) went on an Apple shopping spree. No wonder Facebook hired Sheryl Sandberg to look good to their stockholders. Sustainers make things last. When the shine has worn off, they make things look good.

Good businesses need both Starters and Sustainers.

Source: Giphy.

If you’re building a team, you need both Starters and Sustainers. You need people to get everyone excited about the Shiny New Thing as well as people who will tweak the process around the Shiny New Thing so they can keep shipping them out for decades to come.

Starters make new things. Sustainers keep them around.

Our current landscape values Starters more publicly. But there’s room for us to love everyone!

Also, if you don’t, you’re probably going to fail.

So why not? Use everyone and everything at your disposal.

Brit McGinnis

Written by

Copywriter and CEO of Black Bow Communications. Author of several books. Host of the You’re Not Helping podcast. Tips and leads: @BritMcGinnis

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