Will You Survive A Startup

I have had phenomenal luck in getting to work with some world class people for most of my career. But the good run ended last year, when a majority of my bets on the people front failed. In hindsight I think it was about expectation setting and lack of shared understanding in what it means to work in a startup like environment, specifically within the context of the new people who came on board.

I have attempted to provide my view of what factors are involved in working for a startup or startup-like environment. Obviously I have not covered everything and the factors listed below are relevant to resources I have worked with, or attempted to work with, in Bangalore, India. So some of these factors might not be relevant to your environment.

Technical Skills

This is the foundation upon which all others take their place. Not necessarily all technical but means skills relevant to the function one performs.

If you are an architect, lead or developer then to have skills commensurate with your experience. To think through a problem with rigor and completeness. To bring the same attention to naming a function or class as you would in drawing a grand architectural overview. Not just the syntax but to know the why and the how. Because real-world problems don’t come advertising the solution. You got to investigate, probe and analyze. You need to build a hypothesis and test it. You need an arsenal of techniques to understand and solve the problem.

To think broad during problem analysis and to think deep during execution. To balance form and function. To think of various costs(development, testing, maintaining, supporting etc.) when evaluating possible solutions.

Ability to learn a new tool quickly to solve a problem. To understand that an architecture evolves over a period of time, that nothing worth its salt is ever simple.

Ownership

To own something. Be it a feature, a module or the whole product. To own it in its entirety, from definition to rollout. Own it enough to shepherd it through the challenges of surviving reality. To feel every criticism of your creation as a barb in your being. To cherish every small win as your own.

An attitude and state that is the very antithesis of product efforts at most large organizations and especially service organizations, where one owns a small sliver and spends a life-time becoming an expert in it. An attitude that does not play by the rule book, that demands realization today. An attitude that takes pride in crafting something to be remembered by.

Multi-tasking/Context Shifting

The ability to juggle multiple work-streams, in sequence most of the times and sometimes in parallel. And yet not lose productivity or rigor in execution. One needs to be in the zone to hit the high mode of super productivity, but a startup environment has demands that will not wait or cannot be delegated because there are no people to delegate to.

Being annoyed or saying you cannot deal with context shifts is not an option. You deal with it and survive to battle another day.

Commercial Savviness

Developers usually have little sense of commercial considerations. Sales folks are slightly better at it, though their preferences are colored by the commission they can potentially make. In a startup environment where one person can play product manager, quality assurance/tester, sales and marketing roles, sometimes all in the same day. As a star SEO consultant in Bangalore once said to me, ” It is essential every person in the organization brings this commercial savviness to the table. Every decision has a cost and influences what options are available in the future”.

Perseverance

When bringing out a product your first set of customers would, almost as a rule, gift you with a barrage of criticism. Especially if your product challenges any of the traditional mindsets adopted in performing a specific function.

A demo to a key large customer would fail because someone updated a piece code a couple of hours back. You would spend months coming close to sign off and the customer would walk away without explaining why. Or a client would be willing to sign only if you had features X, Y and Z, and give them a significant discount because they are willing to go with you.

Or, your new hire does not get the urgency of what you need, does not believe in what you do and spreads bad blood within the team, does not turn out to be the rock star you expected them to be, only provides arm-chair criticism of your strategy without providing a credible alternative. A developer you depend on to deliver a key feature leaves the firm.

You get the drift. Challenges on a daily basis is the norm. Yield and there will be no end until your vision is flattened. Trick is to persevere until the last man standing gets the job done.

Vision

This is the ability to look beyond the obvious. To consider approaches that are unconventional. Articulate needs the customer does not know about yet.

Not everyone in a startup needs this ability, most need to just execute well. But without this ability to see what is not there yet one lacks the key to understand a startup environment. Without the ability to be irrationally passionate about a vision, one does not get the rush of being in a startup. One just sees a bunch of people running about, has no clue what is so special about this effort and leaves disappointed.

Empathy

Finally empathy. It is hard to run a marathon every waking day. It just burns out people. Work-life balance, workplace diversity all come in once there is revenue and a org structure to support the product. Until then you push yourself and your team to the brink of their abilities.

But for those who attempt it, treat them with empathy. It does not matter who. From the junior most team member to the guy driving the show, each is a human with all the strengths and insecurities that make up many of us. Lend each other a hand. Each have their highs and lows. Take a balanced perspective.

Summary

In summary, some people are not just cut out for a startup environment. They might not be skilled enough, might be suited to lesser efforts, cannot offer the dedication required or just have different goals. And that is okay. They should be humble enough to accept it and move on, and you should be understanding enough to let them go amicably.

Because the Buddha did not ordain everyone who crossed his path, nor did Christ pick every passerby as a disciple, it is just the way it is. Some are destined and some are not 🙂

And for those who join the ride, reward dedication. Be fiercely loyal to the team that has trusted you. Believe in your vision. Craft beautiful things. Cherish every victory. Fight a good fight. And become the story a handful share with each other in the future.

[Note: Apologies for the lack of structure. I just had to get this out. Comments/Feedback appreciated.]

The Organizations are Merged, On Paper. How About Your People?

Over the last handful of organizational mergers and takeovers, I have been through, have noticed a specific pattern. It involves people from one part of the merged entity passing opinions or making general assertions about the teams from the other entity. Of late I have been thinking about it a little.

Most M&As are complex activities requiring many man years of planning and execution. However the people side of the story, to get individuals from both companies thinking as one, is a more elusive goal.

Some causes as I see it, in no particular order are: 

i) Distrust of the unknown

Trust is the result of interactions that reinforce positive assumptions. Without any interactions it becomes impossible to trust anything.

ii) Changing Power Alignments

Every organizational change comes with associated changes to power structures. Like it or not, these are a very big and critical aspect of any functioning large organization. Any impending change makes the existing set of people go into a sort of hibernation, waiting and watching before they do anything significant.

iii) Unclear Role in Future

At a personal level, people are not comfortable with functioning in a situation filled with ambiguity. This lack of role clarity in near future, makes people freeze up in the present.

iv) Gossip as social bonding

Gossip is key communication channel for a lot of unspoken concerns. This inane communication, like teens hanging around at street corners, serves a social function by helping people bond together.

This could be a very common occurrence but I thought it best to share my thoughts and learn from your experiences.

The way I have dealt with these factors in the past is to focus on doing what I do and to do it well.

I have noticed that events around us remain mostly favorable if one is competent and dedicated to the task on hand.

The 7 Signs of Organizational Inertia

There is plenty of action in the economy to keep even the most disinterested engaged with the fireworks and the scuttling.

While organizations and individuals tighten their cost belts and strengthen the execution of their strategy, one factor can escape even the most keen observer. And that is the current state of affairs within the organization.

This internal state is an amalgam of the hard and soft factors that make up the existence and functioning of an organization. The greatest strategy and analysis can all be sucked into the quicksand of ‘Organizational inertia’.

Hence leaders who are keen to get things done would do well to check if their organizations are afflicted with this inertia factor.

Organizational Inertia, revealed by the following 7 signs-

1) The product ‘strategy’ consists of PR statements only

After a whole load of analysis, the decision is an incremental juggling of feature sets and reprioritization. All this delivered with a significant PR buzz. Speak to a cross section of people on the ground to see if they are enthused by the direction the products are to take. If all this sounds luke warm or downright cold you know something is not right or has been lost while making the distance between strategy and execution.

2) The Grand Technology Platform will solve all problems

Watch out for the grand daddy technology platform syndrome. And steer clear away from it. Unless you want to while away your time and not actually work on anything. Every time I have heard about such all encompassing platforms I cringe at the train wreck that is coming close. Every time such projects have failed to accomplish their original goals.

3) Teams spend their lives propping up the old systems, processes

What proportion of effort does the team spend in activities that would prop up the organization’s future? If the answer is none to minimal, then be assured you are looking at a unmotivated, or at least soon to be unmotivated, workforce. It is not enough if the board room thinks about the future of the organization, you need the rank and file to dream up ideas deal with challenges. Need to have systems and processes in place to harness these ideas.

4) Each organizational unit views the strategy elephant in its own way.

It is not enough to have a strategy and send mails and print posters about it. Once its propagated to the entire org, follow up to see if all the details have been understood and perceived in the same way the strategists had seen it. Of course not every function should understand the idea in all its complexity, in some cases it might not even be feasible. But there should be no discordant perception. Ensure this is not the case by talking to a cross section of people and having middle management do the same.

5) Your teams talk and gossip about internal factors more than about the competition and the marketplace.

This is tricky to verify. But the surest way to ruin is this. With the pace of technology and lowering of threshold for established organizations to be questioned, it would be fatal for people to indulge in this mind set. If you see this behaviour, then switch on your warning signs and begin engaging your teams to understand causes and work upon addressing those

6) Skill in execution is to undergo another re-organization.

Some organizations do re-orgs as a spectator sport. Every change in leadership goes about performing this circus. The endless mails about faith in team, amount of skill available, phenomenal opportunities must be a common occurrence in most organizations. Instead of focusing on getting things right or even understanding what is there already, its perhaps a ritual for leaders to go about shuffling things. I understand this is an oversimplification but wanted raise this point as it can easily seem indispensable. 

7) Plenty of naked emperors ambling around.

These are the white elephants in the room. Sucking out precious resources and sapping out the enthusiasm. No one dare touch them. They are just there, until forced out. Frankly, I have no clue how to handle these. It amazing how people above them can tolerate these even for a second.

Now, a question. Do you think these signs are enough to recognize inertia? What other factors would you add to it?

[update: @polycontextual adds “discordance between organizational identity (internal) and organizational image (external)”. Once I have more feedback shall update this post with the ideas that have come up.]

Programmers with the ‘downtrodden air of refugees’

How many times have you read or heard something and thought, ‘ah, that is what is bugging me!’. Today I had such a moment, while reading an essay of Paul Graham titled “You weren’t meant to have a boss”.

It starts with Paul observing a bunch of programmers on some “team-building” exercise and a hunch that something was not quite right about them. Pursuing that unease he arrives at a set of insights on what distinguishes programmers as founders and programmers as serfs! This is a must read.

I have worked in a variety of organizations, from dot-coms to large multi-nationals. The happiest I have been has been in dot-coms and consulting type organizations. And seldom has a large company surprised me in how it functions.

Just to whet your appetite, I bring a morsel from my scavenging, Bon appetite!

Working for a small company doesn’t ensure freedom. The tree structure of large organizations sets an upper bound on freedom, not a lower bound. The head of a small company may still choose to be a tyrant. The point is that a large organization is compelled by its structure to be one.

Dramatic contrasts in India, raises more questions at HBR

Marshall Goldsmith at HBR wonders about the contrasts in India. To quote-

“In the cities, I saw a longing for extreme opulence — countless ads with rich people living lavish lives — next to the reality of extreme poverty — countless shanties with poor people living harsh lives.”

To be honest, as an Indian, I have become almost numb to the contrasts. What appears as shocking dichotomy is to me a fact of life, these are the environments I grew up in.

Marshall asks a bunch of questions and I take a crack at them below.

What is being gained in the “new” India? What is being lost?
The new India gains self-awareness – Of her strengths, of the fact that she has a voice of her own, that she can dream and deliver on it, that its okay to bully once in a while, that she has to work out her place in the world and her purpose.

The new India has lost, or is in the process of fast losing, her ability to introspect. Her wisdom is a myth, her spirituality consumed by the canker of materialism. Faith is held up by tradition and an intuitive perception as the thing worthy of possession, attempting to withstand the assault of rushing reality and retreating farther into the recesses and having little to no influence on how this life is lived.

How can today’s Indian professionals achieve the material success of the West without losing the wisdom of the East?
Well, how can you lose what you don’t possess?! To be honest, the vast majority of Indians don’t know their own mythology, their scriptures and their past. What is taken for knowledge is only superficial opinions gathered from the mass medium.

I see this as a phase where all that is dead and not reasoned is washed away in the waters of progress and this is not necessarily a bad thing. And ages of poverty has created a perverted need for riches. India wants to splurge now. Given an option between iPhone and Buddha’s Nirvana, it is very clear what the majority would ask for.

So how does India not lose her wisdom. First she re-acquaints herself with the past, its scriptures and law of life. Not by donning the robe of a monk or chanting mantras at a temple doorstep. But by staying in the battlefield of material life. By innovating, by creating and sharing wealth, by not mimicking the voices of the west, by finding the heart of her own self and purpose.

What is your experience of professionals from the West? What can you learn from them?
The ability to focus. To dedicate ones life to any pursuit that captures their fancy. To value labour above and beyond any notional values attached due to legacy or other superficial reasons. To practise dedication to the lord of wealth with such intensity that the East often gapes in wonder!