For today's startups, especially in the tech space, money just doesn't matter. There's more money available today--even for mediocre stories and half-baked ideas--than anyone knows what to do with. And there doesn't appear to be any end in sight as more and more investors frantically chase the shiny new thing that they hope proves exceptional. So if you've got something special to sell and people are beating a path to your door, now’s the time to let them in.
At the same time, virtually every startup today actually needs millions of dollars less to get its business up and operating. You can now hit a few major milestones on what we used to call "chump change." For better or worse, you can pretty much get the ball rolling with relatively modest funding; then you just have to start praying hard for both traction and momentum.
However, it's important to keep in mind that just because the barriers to entry are much lower doesn't mean it's any easier to succeed. In fact, if you don't have all the tools you need, it's actually much harder to break through the noise, clutter, and competition to get yourself and your business noticed.
Talent Management 2.0
So, if money isn't the be-all and end-all gating factor these days, what is? I'd say it all comes down to how you handle your talent. You can teach someone about technology, but you can't teach talent. Talented and highly motivated people have always been and will always be the only long-term, sustainable competitive advantage for a business, and managing this particular resource is something that you need to do from Day One.
We are starting to better understand that talent management is an ongoing, maybe everyday, kind of job, not some kind of layaway plan where once a year, you try to make all the folks happy (or, at least, less unhappy) with raises or bonuses or options and then ignore the issue until something blows up in your face. We see this emphasis on talent acquisition and accommodation in Major League Baseball right now, where the balance of power (and compensation) has shifted dramatically from the on-field and dugout managers to the corporate GMs who are responsible for tracking down, tempting, and securing the talent.
There are already plenty of treatises, textbooks (remember those?), and thoughtful articles out there about the need for (and the clever ways of) attracting, nurturing, and retaining talent, but these things are generally written by people sitting on the sidelines: corporate managers, business-school professors, and HR professionals. Frankly, it takes a lot more talent, strength, and energy to start, expand, or change a company than it does to run one. And, as I like to say about picking a surgeon: I want the guy who's done a hundred operations, not the guy who's watched a thousand.
So let's talk about three critical things to keep in mind when you're dealing with the people who will make or break your business.
1. Exceptional talent is a package deal
A very important part of your job is to make room for people. Talent comes in strange and wonderful packages, and, although we're happy to have the upsides, we are all too often not willing to understand that there are going to be trade-offs that come with the deal. You've got to make sure that there's a place for everyone (including many who don't speak, act, or look like you) in your business, whether or not they believe that bathing is optional or prefer working all night long rather than showing up before the bell rings in the morning. Productivity is what you're looking for, not punctuality.
2. Your business is as bad as your worst employee
Though it's still true that the best and most talented software engineers' contributions are a multiple of those made by the next group of smart programmers or designers, it turns out that there's a more important overall consideration: The damage done by even a modestly underperforming employee is far more negative to the company than the added benefit of those people who punch above their weight. And tolerating mediocre performers is not only a horrible example for the rest of your folks but a contagious disease that can sink your ship.
This means that another part of your job--not the easiest, and certainly not the most popular--is to promptly and regularly get rid of the losers. Even the people who are trying the hardest. It's a sad thing to see people who have just enough talent to try but not enough to succeed. Nonetheless, for your business to move forward, they need to move out, and you have to make that happen. Waiting never helps. These situations don't fix themselves, and I have found over the past 50 years that I have never fired someone too soon. Think about it, and get busy.
3. Even your superstars need support
I used to say that talent and hard work are no match for self-confidence, but over the years I have discovered that every one of us has serious moments of self-doubt and crises of confidence. With extremely talented people, it's a special problem in their maturation and development. In their early years, whether it's business or baseball, superstars can mainly get by on their talent alone, at least until the going gets really tough and the competition starts to even out the score. But at some point, they fail. It's inevitable, and that's when you need to be standing by to help. Failure is essential--only after your raw skills and talent have let you down do you realize that the real superstars are those people who combine their talents with thought, preparation, and discipline.
But that first taste of failure is a precarious juncture for people who've never known a rainy day or caught a bad break. Without some support (whether they ask for it or not), there's a risk that they will fall apart and never get their confidence and their mojo back. If you've had it your own way for too long, you can come to believe (or at least convince yourself) that even luck is a talent. But it's not. At these times, if you want to hang on to these precious people, you need to be there to help.