When I retired from law in 1979 after 10 years as a trial attorney, I thought I knew pretty much what to expect as I set out to start my own database company: little money, long hours, lots of stress, and the constant ups and downs of birthing a new business. I had already been working 80-hour weeks, traveling cross country regularly for trials, and dealing with a constant stream of crazy, demanding clients. I assumed that the masses of consumers and insurance adjusters I hoped to quickly convert to customers couldn't possibly be any worse than the aggrieved and angry litigants I was representing every day. But I was badly mistaken. As it happens, the really rude awakening actually had nothing to do with the customers; it also had very little to do with the nature of the job itself.
In those days, the bookstores (remember them) weren't bursting at the seams with books and magazines explaining everything there was to know about the challenges of being an entrepreneur. In fact, Inc. had just started publishing in April of that same year. If you asked most people what the word "entrepreneur" even meant, they'd usually say "gainfully unemployed" or about to be. Being an entrepreneur wasn't exactly the profession at the time that any mother-in-law would have picked for their darling daughter's husband and most of them wouldn't have called it a profession at all. Imagine a highly successful lawyer giving it all up to become an insurance adjuster or, worse yet, a used car salesman. What a shame and a story that almost everyone (except me) believed couldn't possibly end well.
My fundamental miscalculation -- in comparing my new life to the good old days at the law firm -- was that I didn't realize that nothing mattered more than the people who were going to be in the boat with me. And that, in the real world, those people were a whole lot different than my law firm partners. Not until I was out there in the wild trying to make things happen, did I realize that the professional workforce at a high end, highly selective law firm is a completely different animal from the folks you can find, recruit and afford in a startup.
At the law firm, you're surrounded by partners and associates who are all equally nuts, mostly in a good way -- terribly anal and attentive to every detail, and off the charts in smarts. If they weren't talented, tough and bright, they wouldn't be there long. And, after a short while, you begin to take for granted that everyone works insane hours, that they're all self-starters and absurdly ambitious, and they're driven to do whatever it takes to get the job done well, on time, and every time. That's part of a history, a culture, and some long-standing and entrenched behavioral norms that may never change. And, of course, because they all came from great schools, were aggressively pursued, and make a ton of money, they're unbelievably competitive in every respect and Type A personalities to the nth degree.
But when you get outside of that affluent and insular legal bubble and try to find and hire your first team, you quickly discover that beggars can't be choosers and that you pretty much have to take whoever you can get. And that the ones you do get come in all sizes, shapes, and especially attitudes. You don't exactly get the pick of the litter -- more likely, you're taking whoever you can find and hoping to upgrade the team over time if you're lucky. The most important consideration in those early hires isn't skill. It's always will. If their hearts are in the right place and they're willing to try, then it's on you to help make them successful.
A lot of your early employees aren't going to be neurotics like you who have joined the crusade and had a healthy gulp or two of the company Kool-Aid. Given how quickly things change, they might not even be sure what exactly they've signed up for. And a fair number of them may be equally unsure about what they want to do with their own lives in the long run. In many cases, they're much more likely to just be happy to have a job, but not that interested in giving up the rest of their lives to make your dreams come true. And, unlike you, they regard work as what they do during the day from 9 to 5 and not who they are. And they're probably much healthier mentally as a result.
One of the biggest mistakes that young entrepreneurs make is in trying to assemble a cast of characters who all look and act just like them and, not only isn't this actually possible as the business grows, it's really a bad plan as well. There are no better recent examples than WeWork and the toxic and pumped-up culture of Uber of old. To build a strong team, you need a mix of people - some lovers, some lifers, some lunatics, and even a few losers when you start out. Honestly, to survive during this phase of your company's development and not drive yourself crazy, you need to set your sights and your expectations of your people a lot lower at the outset than you'd ever imagine. As long as some of them show up, do their assigned tasks, and don't cause more problems than they're worth, you need to take your medicine and keep moving forward. Things will get better over time if you keep going. Start with what you have.
And the bigger and more important lesson for leaders is one that takes quite a while to learn. It's related to a problem that we see quite often in sports managers who end up losing their jobs. They were usually trying to make their players work and perform within their favorite "system" whether or not the players had the interest, skills or egos that were appropriate to the task. Business just doesn't work that way. You've got to operate with the assets and resources you have on hand and put together the best team you can.
In the startup world, it's even more critical to understand that you may have a dream, you may have a game plan and a roadmap, and you may even know exactly where you want to take the business. But you can't get there by yourself. As you start out, the job is to get the best work and results out of the team you have -- not the team you wish you had -- and to exhibit a little patience and some more modest expectations until your people can, hopefully, grow into their positions or you are eventually able to find better and more capable employees. If you build your business from the bottom up, it will have a powerful and lasting foundation.
The bottom line is that you can't make your people fit the system, you've got to create a fluid approach and a near-term plan that optimizes and maximizes the team's strengths and skills and the talents that they have today -- on the way to tomorrow -- or else you'll end up burning out the people you have and not attracting the ones you'll eventually need.