Reading: 11 Counterintuitive Company-Building Truths11 mins
11 Counterintuitive Company-Building Truths
We have ended each of our podcast interviews with our ecosystem-defining guests with one key question. While you can hear the full interviews here, these answers also include sneak peeks of future podcast episodes, soon to be released.
Here are our favorite answers to the question:
What is one important truth about company-building that very few people would agree with you on?
#1: The emotional toll is bigger than you’d think
Any great founder needs to be comfortable being very uncomfortable. There are going to be some heartfelt decisions that you’re going to have to make that only you can make. You’re going to agonize over them, you’re going to have sleepless nights, and you’re going to get conflicting feedback. You are going to be in very uncomfortable situations where you may have to fire your best mate, who was your co-founder. It may be that you are not the right person to take the company from a series B to a Series C. These are deeply emotional conversations.
This is especially relevant for those who have been engineers in the past, who believe that they can make decisions based on data and facts and be unemotional about it. But the emotions do come in. You gave birth to this baby, that is your company. This thing that’s been your life and soul, that has taken you away from your family, perhaps for the last four or five, six years. Is now the right time for you to hand the baton over? Having gone through some of those emotions myself, this is not something that’s probably discussed as much as I’d expect. And you can’t hide away – the more you bury your head in the sand, the harder it is going to be to make the right decision.
Stephen Nundy, Lakestar Partner and CTO
#2: Getting Stuck is worse than failing
The most precious asset in life and startups is time and you should optimize for acceleration and faster learning more than moments in time. The launch moment is important, you shouldn’t dismiss it, but it doesn’t have to be perfect and guess what… It’s never going to be important.
That is why the worst-case scenario is not failing, but getting stuck. The worst-case scenario is getting to a company that has $5 million in ARR and is growing 20% – it’s too good to walk away from but it is not really what you signed up for. For me, that’s always been the thing I’ve been optimizing against. I would rather go big or go home. I would rather try going for something real than get stuck in the worst-case scenario and then lose time, which is your most precious asset.
#3: Scarcity is good
Scarcity is good. It’s good in general because it forces you to be creative, especially when we’ve all got used to an abundance of everything. We all know that some of the best companies have been built in difficult times, and maybe that’s the phase which we are entering. So less is more, no matter what. When there is too much noise, too much PR, too much money, it doesn’t always go well.
Sonali De Ryker, Accel Partner
#4: The easiest problems are the ones people struggle the most with
Hard problems are often easier than easy problems. This is something that people will find counterintuitive. If I say we are going to build the 6th release of the intercom messenger which is going to change how the internet communicates, you’ll have a line of every principal designer and engineering PM wanting to be involved in that project. The best people will fight to get involved and make it the showcase of their career. Whereas, if I say that we need to get revision 2 of an integration out of the door, funnily enough, this door is not being beaten down.
Oftentimes it is the latter that is important. It’s hard to get quality work done on dull problems and it’s easy to get quality work done on exciting problems. Those tasks that are damn dull are easy: when you have to break down exactly what you have to do, it’s not that difficult technically. The implication of that is that you are more likely to screw things up on something ridiculously embarrassing in hindsight, than you are on something challenging and daunting. So think about the boring stuff that you are assuming will happen and will get done well in your organization, the basic blocking and tackling that you assume will be fine and easy. That will probably be the stuff that kills you.
#5: Let your problems sell themselves
This is relevant when trying to make a change that requires buy-in from your employees. Say you think we need middle-managers or something around onboarding or staggering. The temptation is to try and hold one big messy all-hands to explain your thinking and get everyone else to see the same problems that you see coming down the tracks. It never works. You get met with skepticism, albeit healthy skepticism of people saying “I’ll believe it when I see it, but I don’t see what you are talking about.”
The counterintuitive advice here is that you are better off letting these things just break. When something is clearly broken, everyone points to you and asks what’s the solution here? And you say “I guess we need a middle manager!” If you need buy-in, people won’t buy the solution unless they’ve bought the problem. You can either go around selling the problem, or you can let the problem sell itself. Oftentimes, you let the problems sell themselves and people will beat your door down looking for a solution.
#6: Let the pendulum swing
This is originally from Shopify. Suppose that you could focus on two separate things: bugs or AI, feature A or feature B. Since both are important, the temptation is to try and split the middle, do a little bit of A and a little bit of B, move fast but not too fast. However, you end up giving a complex message to your company that can be hard to understand.
The idea of “let the pendulum swing” is that you are oftentimes better off doing a huge amount of one then a huge amount of the other. This could be “we are going ship then work on quality then ship then work on quality.” The effectiveness of a clear message that is simple, with no nuance to it, and universally understood with everyone on the same page is massive. The effectiveness of a nuanced message that requires interpretation by every individual can be washed out.
In multiple cases, there is value to saying “we should do this thing and then we will do the next thing” versus feeling the pressure to have a grand plan that covers all scenarios. I’ve learned to love the borderline stupidity of just letting the pendulum swing and saying “I know I said that that was important last quarter, but it’s not important this quarter and that’s ok.”
#7: Senior executives can wait
It is usually better to wait to hire senior executives, what many people call “director level” people, until later in the business. I find that a lot of executives interview very well, but are terrible. A lot of hiring mistakes can be made at that middle management type of layer with people who are just, frankly, not up to your standard. I’ve heard from a lot of VCs that say “hey, it’s time for you to start hiring directors” for a company that’s 150 people. Do you need those directors? Is that what you need right now? Do you need it everywhere? Or do you just need it in some places?
This also applies if you have met someone who you think is great and could be a fantastic leader for an organization, but you already have a good person with who you feel very comfortable within the role. Then you need to start going out there and really understanding what great looks like to be sure. For example, if you’re looking for a great marketing leader, reach out to people that you know and respect and say “do you know any fantastic CMOs, I don’t want to hire them, I just want to talk to them for 30 to 45 minutes, and better understand their role.”
Figure out what are the companies that are most like you, who are some truly great CMOs out there that you could potentially talk to, and use that to create a rubric for what you might want to look for in this particular hire.
#8: Execution sets you apart
It’s ok to make mistakes early on: you’re going to make a lot of them. I do not believe that the company will fail based on one single wrong decision. As long as you fix them, and you fix them fast, then you are going to be ok. Execution is the thing that sets you apart, that is the one thing people should remember.
#9: Early team construction beyond founders matters
It is all about the people: I don’t mean that just in terms of investing but in terms of hiring as well. It is not all about the early-stage entrepreneurs that we fund: It’s in the thoughtfulness that they put into who they bring around the table early, and the mistakes that they sometimes go through and learn from.
These are the most critical decision points in company creation. Life is too short to work with people you don’t have chemistry with, who you don’t like, and who you don’t share values with. If you see that early on, you save yourself a lot of heartache.
#10: The 80-hour work week is not needed by founders
There has been a narrative that successful founders need to work 80 hours a week plus. I do think that’s the case sometimes, particularly with young founders who would need to put in more effort because there’s just a lot of stuff they cannot foresee. But it’s not the whole truth. It’s certainly not how I have spent my time.
It’s not that I feel that I haven’t worked a ton, but there have been times when I’ve been at the office executing meetings for way below those expected hours. What has been the toughest part has been the mental load. It has been the thinking time and the dinner discussions with my wife around people dynamics and stuff like that. I’m not going to hide it, at the end of the day it is tough to be a founder. But that 80-hour work week, it doesn’t have to be like that. You can trade a lot of hours for flexibility, especially around family, but do expect a mental load.
Jeppe Rindom, Pleo Co-founder and CEO
#11: Impact gets lost in the wash – let’s get it back
It’s important to consider the impact of what you do. It’s possible to build a company that does well for its founders, investors, and shareholders but not for society. It’s also possible to start a company with the best of intentions, but have the growth blinders on and not see the unintended and unexpected impact.
The truth is that founders, investors, and stakeholders should hold each other accountable: we only have this one rock to live on. Innovating responsibly means building companies from the outset for both growth and good, and aligning to the long-term interests of your stakeholders.
And it’s hard. Growth gets interesting – it’s easy to get wrapped up in it, but we have a mission to fulfil. Let’s come back to basics. Come back to that will, that curiosity, that clarity to ensure that we are thinking about the impact of what we are building.