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Understanding the Politics of Tech Startups

There's no sense in ignoring internal politics. Every startup must deal with them.
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Many startups these days are started by young, technical or product founders who are in the idealistic phase of their lives and careers.

Thus I hear many talk about "radical transparency" when virtually ever experienced operator in my inner circle talks knowingly about that naiveté. It’s not that I don’t love idealism -- I was young once, too! -- it's just that the more experience you get in your career the more you come to realize certain truths.

One of the most common refrains I hear is, "I want to have a company with no politics. You know, no bullshit." OK, I ad-libbed the last bit.

But there is no such thing as "no politics" since we're human beings and we're genetically wired for politics. It's called social interaction and understanding peoples' motives, what makes them tick, who they don't get along with, what rivalries exist, etc. is a very important part of being a leader.

It's why I wrote a post outlining why the job of a CEO is often "chief psychologist" -- especially if the company grows beyond 20 employees.

And it's why many early-stage companies blow up. We spend all our time as an industry talking about "growth hacking," "design principles," or "product/market fit" and not enough about the most important skills for success -- people management. It's why I called out the importance of "executive coaches" in this post. Given how important people management is it's surprising more of us don't have group coaches.

Think about it -- most of us accept the world of free-market capitalism in which of us acts as greedy individuals but the well-being is guided by an "invisible hand" the ends up maximizing benefits for society. Of course it sounds nicer to live in a utopian socialist society where everybody has the same amount and life is "fair." But the reality of why socialism or communism don't work is precisely because as human beings we’re fundamentally motivated by power and greed and thus those that set out to form perfect societies end up just controlling the resources and people for their own personal benefits.

I would argue that each individual team member of your startup trying to maximize their own personal outcomes (promotions, stock option grants, future resume successes, personal wins) produces better results for companies than pretending that we're not human beings motivated by success.

Look at many of the high profile companies you know and you can trace some press coverage of high-profile blow-ups in team members

I talk about situations like these because they are the NORM not the exception. I call it "the Co-Founder mythology" and it's persistent in our startup mythology.

Trust me -- ignore startup politics at your peril. You need to understand power, ownership, leadership, performance, relationships, motivations, alcoholism, depression, resentment, jealousy, scorn. They all exist and ignoring them is like ignoring human norms.

Or as Hunter Walk aptly notes, "Execs Who Can’t Attract Former Coworkers Are Red Flags." True. Politics at its rawest. Great people follow great people. If they don't follow, you  know why -- no matter what anybody spins.

I was thinking about this over the holiday.

First, I recently read the must-read book Hatching Twitter by Nick Bilton. I'm friends with several people in the book and I'm sure they didn't love being written about -- nobody ever does in this sort of book. And of course it's impossible to re-create an exact history -- especially since no individual actually really knows the "truth" or remembers everything perfectly.

But the book is a must read for entrepreneurs. If for no other reason than no other book I have read about startups has so perfectly captured what it's like when there is infighting, factions, disagreements, sexual relationships, power-struggles and lots of money at stake. And I can tell you from first-hand experience this is EXACTLY what goes on inside startups.

Over the break I devoured a book about politics called Double Down, which is an absolute page turner. It was written by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann and documents the 2012 election from the early GOP primary fights right through to the final outcome. It is written by two long-time insiders with first-hand accounts from the campaign trail. It hints at why Chris Christie was all too happy to turn against Romney in the final weeks of the campaign. It goes into salacious details about the inter-Mormon factions that fought between Jon Huntsman (senior & junior) and the Romneys. (the latter accusing the former of many things including not really being Mormon because John drinks wine and is socially liberal).

It is politics, relationships, money-grabbing and especially power-grabbing human behavior at its peak. It follows on from the equally compelling "Game Change" by the same authers, which I read years ago after the 2008 election. If you want to enjoy some old-time Clinton shenanigans or chortle at how crude of a human being John McCain can be or what a scumbag John Edwards is -- this book is for you.

Me?

I love politics. Not the game playing itself. But trying to dissect human behaviors -- good and bad. After all, every success and failure in business -- as in sports -- it attributable to how well we perform as teams.

This article was originally published on Mark Suster's blog, Both Sides of the Table.

IMAGE: Matthias Clamer/Getty
Last updated: Jan 3, 2014

MARK SUSTER | Columnist

Mark Suster is a two-time entrepreneur who has gone to "the dark side" of venture capital. He joined GRP Partners in 2007 as a general partner after selling his company to Salesforce.com. He focuses on early-stage technology companies. You can find him on Twitter @msuster.




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