Mark Suster at GRP Partners recently wrote an absolutely brilliant blog post about what it’s really like to found a startup — beyond all the perceived fame, glory, and riches. If you haven’t read it, go read it (I’ll wait).
Back? Good. He nailed it, right? It’s dead on and accurately describes much of my first, second, and third / current experiences founding and running startups.
Mark talks about his experiences as an entrepreneur, filtered by his current experience in VC. Looking at my experience lifetime of experience, I have a different point of contrast. Due to a slight mistake, for a period of time I found myself smack dab in the middle of a traditional 9-to-5 gig at a very large company. This experience was incredibly valuable to me, insofar as it really drove home the fact that I am completely unemployable, and the reasons why I much prefer to wallow in the infamous Trough of Sorrow than to slouch on the Break Room Couch of Corporate Drudgery.
Don’t get me wrong, when I say I’m unemployable, I don’t mean I’m incompetent. I can code. I can manage. I am pretty good at solutioning (and fluent in corporatespeak). I am adept at explaining and “selling” complex technologies and solutions to C-Level execs. I have presented at conferences. I have been published in, and have contributed to, some high profile publications. From a pure resume perspective I would seem a likely candidate for a cushy corporate gig.
But I would literally want to blow my brains out.
On a regular basis your C-Level execs want to bring in what I call the “JoS. A Banks Set”: the tassel-toed loafer-wearing “experts” who charge seven-figure fees to either:
a) validate the obvious solution or approach that you knew within 5 minutes of identifying the problem or opportunity; or
b) attempt to invalidate your solution in favor of someone they have a reseller agreement with.
This second one is more likely, because by invalidating your solution, they validate their own existence. Their first priority is not solving problems, it is justifying those expensive tassels to the C-Levels, who in turn prioritize not the success of the company but the personal absolution of guilt when shit eventually hits the fan. “It can’t have been my fault,” they can explain to the shareholders as they strap into their golden parachutes, “didn’t you see all the consultants I brought in?” This is not how we do things at startups. Can you ever in your life imagine Booz Allen showing up to help you decide whether you should pivot or not?
The ideal of accountability skirting is not limited to the folks in the corner offices. Indeed, it is key to survival in corporate America, which is why some prehistoric middle-managing genius invented committees. A committee is a group of employees cunningly assembled to provide for a complete diffusion of responsibility at every level. No one can be at fault when no one ever makes a decision. Arguably, you could blame the failings of a committee on whoever called for the organization of said committee, but no luck there because this committee was constituted upon the recommendation of another committee. But who came up with that committee? (Hint: Probably a consultant.)
At a startup, every employee is called on to make individual decisions every day, and ultimately, responsibility — and blame — rests squarely on the founders’ shoulders. Which is as it should be, and why we work so hard to make the right decisions. We make 5-10 super-important decisions every day and we manage to leverage data to drive these decisions.
There is a very strange and unique specimen you will find in corporate America known as the “Middle Manager”. These are lifetime paper shufflers. They can’t code, they can’t design, they can’t lead from the trenches. They are GREAT at posturing and playing politics. They are awesome at not getting fired. Because they are in the middle, they can spread blame multilaterally: Why are our Christmas bonuses so low this year? Those assholes in corporate. Why is our fourth quarter sagging like the distended belly of a Monday morning quarterback? Those idiots in sales. Why can’t those idiots in sales get their shit together? Sales are Johnson’s turf; it’s really disappointing that he’s not stepping up.
Middle managers are experts in the art of leveraging committees and consultants. Like their consultant idols, they tend to shop at JoS. A Banks, though their chinos always seem way more wrinkly. It turns out these individuals are completely unnecessary, which is why we don’t have them at startups.
The great thing about committees is that they can have meetings. During my brief foray into the shadowy corporate world, I found myself in meetings about meetings about meetings. Meetings are a great way to not do work. Remember when you were in school and you organized your desk, reorganized your desk, and then drafted a plan of attack to cram, and then realized that before you could actually study you should really brush up on your study skills and would thus need to spend a couple hours researching the best study habits on the Internet, and also maybe look at porn?
When you graduate into the corporate world, you accomplish all of this with meetings. At my corporate gig, I literally had to block off an hour every day on my calendar just so I could sit and do work. My calendar was 90% meetings and conference calls. Sometimes, the need for a meeting would be so great that it was impossible to wait for an established committee to have a meeting where they could call for the meeting, which is why we have ad hoc committees, “ad hoc” of course being Latin for “this spreadsheet isn’t going to not complete itself! Hurry lets all just go into the boardroom and start drawing charts. I call pie graphs!” (Latin is very economical.) It is possible that this emphasis on meetings has been tried at startups. It is impossible to know for sure, however, because those startups are all dead.
One of the best things about working at a startup is that we don’t need annual reviews. An annual review is where you sit down with a bunch of files and reports on an employee to find out if they are doing their job well. This takes hours out of your day and years off your life. Review at a startup is easy: if you are not killing it every day I need you to be fired. How do I know whether or not you are killing it every day? Because I work with you every day. You are either great or extraneous; I don’t need someone else’s (see Managers, Middle) double-spaced opinion on the subject.
If a corporation is, like the Latin “corpus” from which its name ultimately derives (look Ma, real Latin!), actually a “body,” then HR is the cancer slowly eating it away from within. HR is the worst thing in the world. It stands for “Human Resources,” which sounds good until you remember that scene in The Matrix where Neo discovers that all of humanity is stuck in pods where our vital energies are sucked away by the System to provide power to their infernal Machine. So actually, “Human Resources” is a pretty good name for this department.
The #1 reason for HR’s crappiness is that it stands in the way of firing crappy performers and very heavily incentivizing the upper echelon. Everything has to be fair and equitable across the entire company as far as incentives go. Every crappy performer deserves 6-12 months or micromanagement and review. HR departments cannot thrive at startups because they would quickly expand until they consumed the entire host, like the guy who goes into the doctor’s office with the frog growing out of his forehead and the Doctor says “Oh my God, how the hell did that happen?” and the frog says “Well, Doc, it started with a pimple on my ass.” HR is the man-sized ass pimple of corporate America.
In most corporate gigs, appearances matter more than actual results. Hence the consultants, and the committees, and the meetings. The majority of your time is spent posturing and conniving rather than just getting shit done. Startups are the opposite. At startups, processes serve results, not the other way around. If the old adage is true that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, then the corporate corollary is “do the same thing over and over again, irrespective of results, because that is the way it has always been done and if you’d like to action a change going forward then that is really something we should definitely bring up at the next meeting.” At startups, there is no “the way its always been done,” just “the way we did it last time” and “thinking of an even better way to do it is a great way to not get fired.” At startups, an ugly win is still a win and the end result is all that matters.
In conclusion, is running a startup insanely difficult? Yes. Do I long for the days when sleep was more than just “that time that I blinked for a really long time last Thursday before getting back to work?” Yes I do. Do I sometimes miss kicking back in my cubicle checking Facebook, maybe watching a cat video, knowing that whether I kick ass today or totally shit the bed, my day at the office will have no discernible impact on the well-being of my coworkers, my company, or the world? No.
I don’t miss that at all.
At a startup, every minute matters. Every day counts. Is it nerve-racking to know that if I mess up today I could seriously screw things up for my customers, my employees, my investors, and my family? Yes it is. But man, give me that or the JoS-A.-Banks-buy-5-get-1-free-merry-go-round-of-buck-passing-and-inconsequentiality-until-I’m-fifty-nine-and-a-half-and-can-finally-retire-on-a-fixed-income-which-I-hope-the-parent-company-didn’t-sink-into-a-bullshit-imploding-pension-fund-and-also-assuming-I-don’t-bounce-out-early-on-a-heart-attack-or-stroke-or-self-inflicted-gunshot-wound life of corporate America, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
If the above description of working a cushy corporate gig doesn’t sound so bad to you, don’t do a startup.
If Mark’s very accurate description of Startup life scares you enough to deter you, don’t do a startup.
However, if the idea of a life spent in Corporate America depresses the shit out of you to the point that nothing the world of startups can throw at you comes close to comparing — come on in, the water’s nice and warm!
Sometimes life is not fair. Sometimes you have to choose between the lesser of two evils. In my humble opinion there’s only one real evil in this decision and that makes it an easy decision to make.