The hard stuff in #startups — letting people go to conduct a better orchestra.

If you’ve never let someone go, you’re lucky but there’s times when it’s easy and times when its hard. Easy, is when someone is bad at their job. Your job as founder is to create a symphony by recruiting the best musicians who all play a different instrument and to make them play together beautifully through harmonious and meticulous instruction.

Now, running a startup in a new or disruptive industry sometimes even the founder doesn’t know how the song should go at times.

This means it can sound out of sync, but you can spot those that have oversold their abilities a mile away and you know they will always make your orchestra sound worse. Letting those people go is a matter of quality control, and your job as conductor.

However — that doesn’t change the fact that sometimes, your orchestra is too large for the concert hall, and you could play almost the same exact song, if pushed, in a more efficient way if you just removed certain elements, despite them being at the top of the game. The reality is you know, in your heart of hearts, you could survive the tune you are trying to conduct without them, and it would save you money, time, and enable you to focus on the key instruments that make up the majority of the noise.

Following a board meeting at the start of the month, with a look at our runway, personnel and priorities, it was agreed that we would let 4 people go, immediately. It was, in the end, a spreadsheet job. Sometimes that’s the best way.

When you’re the conductor, you’ve put together the song sheet and figured out what skills you need, and during this process, you come to love your musicians who are hitting every note on time.

It becomes impossible to remove emotion when making the tough decisions. But if you’re the financier, it’s a lot easier. You can break things down into — “is she doing the intro”, “is he doing the crescendo” and ask the important questions where you know the audience’s attention lies. If you are unable to defend a role that musician is performing around those questions, they are in danger of appearing less crucial, and as such, being asked to find a new orchestra to play in. That’s what happened.

We got the news on a Monday night, but in a team of 24, letting go of 4 people at once is a big culture shock. We had Tuesday to plan it and had to execute by Wednesday. It’s like ripping off a band aid, as they say. Usually we would just let go of one poor performer with a job chat and tell them. This time, we were letting go of 4 top performers who never let us down, had a perfect work ethic and were a pleasure to work with. It was horrible.

I asked my friend Toby, who was the CTO at MindCandy before setting up Space Ape Games what we should do, I tend to go to him for advice, he’s older wiser and straight talking, which helps. He told me that in these situations, the earlier on in the week the better. Like a true technologist — he’s tested all the different ways of letting people go and noted down over the years the team’s reactions to the different styles. The worst, he said, was doing it on a Friday, despite you thinking it might be the best. Left with a weekend to fester without any real control of the situation, it can turn a fair decision into a sour one quickly. Beyond that, you, as the founder, aren’t in control of the team around you over a weekend, so you cant do simple things like talk to them about your reasoning and make them reassured that they are valued and safe in their roles.

On Tuesday, I emailed 3 big groups of company leaders, founders, and managing directors/CEOs that I’m an active part of, to explain what we had to do the next day, and see if there was interest for roles with those skill sets, explaining that we didn’t want to let any of them go, they were all excellent, and we couldn’t recommend them more highly. I was inundated with responses and immediate requests to meet. That made it a bit easier. Letting people go is really, really hard, but actually, hiring great people is a lot harder.

My Co Founder Joel and I arranged to meet them on Wednesday morning before work, he met one back to back with another in one location, I did the other. There were a lot of tears, and pure shock, of course — they’d never had a warning, they’d never not performed. One of them had never been let go of before, so it was an especially big shock, and it made me feel 10x as bad, but I had to keep a brave face in front of her tears, the decision was really beyond my control anyway. The coffee shop felt so bad for both of us, they brought over free coffee.

We asked them to get their essential stuff quickly, and come back for the rest another time so they didn’t have to explain themselves to other team members. Then, somewhat unconventionally, Joel took half the team into one room I took the other half. Joel took content and marketing, I took product and tech. We essentially took each other’s teams, but our rationale was that we could talk about it in a more open way like this, and by splitting into smaller teams we could invite debate and do it more conversational style than having it dictated.

This seemed to work well — there were lots of questions around targets, requirements, roadmap planning, etc. It actually focused people into a sense of what needs to get done, and how fast, to make sure we weren’t slipping like that again, and therefore there weren’t any outcomes like this in the near future again. Of course, I know in business that quite often these things are out of your hands, but it was great to see how people reacted — though they were sad, they focused their energy on the task at hand.

Once I was back at my desk, I began emailing their CVs to people, and within the same day, had over 30 interview requests. This really helped to soften the blow. I communicated with each of them during the period and explained that we would be paying them for the next 4 weeks regardless, and do everything we could to put them back into a job before there was any chance of them going a week without a pay-check, and of course explained they would all be getting great references.

I’m writing this post with their permission (having asked in advance if they mind), and now knowing, in the aftermath, with the dust settled, that they are all now employed in excellent companies, and have personally all written to us to say thank you for the opportunity and how much effort we put in to helping them afterwards.

Whilst letting go of 4 people, by surprise, in one day, was a new and horrible experience I didn’t enjoy — it’s actually been one of the most rewarding professional experiences I’ve gone through. It was a necessity, something I had to do, and the repercussions could have been 10x as bad — the team could have been immensely demotivated and disappointed, yet they supported our decision and spent time explaining how they felt, or where/why they were confused — and we were able to have a dialogue over it rather than letting it fester, and causing serious internal issues with the team members left behind.

Now, with them all happy in their new jobs, I’m pleased to say that I learned a new skill, believe that we managed a tricky situation very well, and have come through it, frankly, with a slimmed down orchestra playing exactly the same tune, working that bit harder for each other to make sure there are no notable gaps for the audience, and as conductor, it’s music to my ears.

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