Every start-up comes to a point where things aren't going so well. The equipment needed didn't arrive, the product development schedule is late, or the marketing campaign launched...and the phone didn't immediately start ringing off the hook. Or perhaps things are going so well that the team is exhausted, working lots of ramen-noodle-and-Redbull-fueled nights for little pay.
In my start-up career, I've encountered all these situations and more—and I know that it is at these crucial times that keeping the team motivated isn't just an option. It is a necessity. But as a new owner, founder, or partner, maybe you're not sure how to keep that fire burning. At these times, draw on what makes you a leader, a founder, and a person whom people wanted to follow in the first place.
In one of the start-ups I work with, the founder takes the team to lunch whenever someone who works virtually comes to town. It helps us all bond and helps the remote person who often is isolated feel like a star. They become the focus and they get face-to-face time with the team that keeps them going long after they've left town.
"When things are going sideways, as they can in a long product march, you have to celebrate and memorialize the small victories," said serial entrepreneur and angel investor Jason Calacanis. "Giving a company presentation showing the latest milestones, complete with beers and a round of applause for micro-accomplishments, can go a long, long way."
During the mini dot-com bust of late 1996, a start-up I was working for literally ran out of money. We came in after Thanksgiving weekend to find we were all out of a job. It was a huge violation of trust—we all thought things were going well. The CEO told us about a bridge loan being negotiated, and was honest that if it came in we would all get paid at a half-rate. However, if we kept working and made the company successful, full wages would be restored. He also told us one of the programmers who was in the country on a visa would stay on salary, paid from the CEO's own bank account, so he would not have to be deported. This gesture helped convince everyone that the CEO's heart was in the right place and no one quit for several months. (Ultimately, however, some of us had to make the tough choice to get a job with a full salary.)
Motivation can also mean belt-tightening and tough talk. Calacanis reminds us that "Sometimes start-ups are hard, and I think that a portion of today's often-discussed Gen Y is simply too 'smart' to want to put in the hours and sacrifice needed to get to success. They're used to playing video games where little rewards and badges are popping up every minute. That's not life, that's a video game. Life is hard, and there aren't game mechanics every step of the way. Sometimes it's a grind."
Start-ups are often a risk-reward scenario, and by taking a job at one, employees are aware that there's less of a safety net, support system, and back stop. As an owner, manager, or teammate, you may have to do whatever is needed to succeed. But you can't do it alone. So keep that excitement high even when things aren't going well, and remember that motivated employees are going to turn around and go to bat for your and the company when you need them the most.
What do you do to keep the motivation level high at your company? Share your secrets with the rest of us in the comments.