Startups, Disrupting Themselves

Over the past few months, we’ve seen a series of well-respected, high-profile founders and executives leaving large companies like Google. When a company gets too big, or their mission doesn’t match, people with the resources, network or skills will often leave for new opportunities.

However, at startups, companies often hold on to employees far past the point when they are useful. Sometimes, when companies and employees wait too long, it becomes actively harmful and disruptive to the team.

Sometimes, it’s just better to leave when you are done

Over the course of several years, our startup had hired a bright, technical team to help build some sophisticated statistical models that would power analytics. This time was composed of a few developers, a lead versed in statistics and quantitative analysis, and several data analysts.

At the time, this was the most critical task that needed to be accomplished by our technical staff. This team needed a broad set of skills, looking across many disciplines to create a solution that would work for technically and for the business as well.

The team managed to complete their mission, solved key technical problems, and the business grew and acquired new kinds of customers and revenue streams.

That’s when the problems really started

We tried to take one of our developers and repurpose them for skunk works projects. This turned out to be a distraction, ultimately failed, and was outside the core expertise of this developer. Another developer took on a project in a different part of our infrastructure. This, too, was outside their core expertise, but they did it because they believed in the company. This project caused a lot of disruption amongst the development staff and didn’t achieve its intended goal.

The lead that was hired to design and solve the analytics problem started looking for a new project inside the company. Most of the business’ new big problems (sales & marketing, churn) were outside of their core domain expertise. Being smart, they didn’t see this as a problem, and they thought they could just “pick up” other areas — marketing, finance, strategy. Though they had some good insights, they clashed with others who already were in these roles, and ended up causing a fair amount of grief.

Over the course of several years, the leadership of that team left the company. They ended up in roles at other companies, better suited to their expertise, and the company was then able to deploy their resources towards solving new business problems, instead of the last ones. The data analysts on that team eventually grew into leadership roles and stayed with the company, more suited to the company’s new challenges.

“Smart and gets things done” is not enough.

Our mistake was trying to hold on to bright and talented team members who no longer had a mission. This might work in larger companies that effectively function as a larger talent ecosystem. In a startup, the company often has one big problem to solve at a time.

It’s best to recognize that startups don’t always have the resources (or business problems) to retain bright and ambitious staff forever. By using a mission-based approach, companies can staff aggressively for solving their biggest problems immediately. In a tight job market, this lets bright employees find the best opportunities, and lets the company hire in roles that they need, instead of holding on to the past.

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