Thinking back on it, the fruit flies should've been a warning signal. My company, Iodine, had the quintessential San Francisco startup office: ground-floor loft off an alley in the South of Market (SOMA) neighborhood. The space was great--except that the building's garbage room was right off our front door.
Our neighbors (who ran another, far less spectacular startup) were not diligent about properly disposing of their lunch leftovers, and during warm weeks, that garbage room became a breeding ground for fruit flies, which would inevitably swarm their way into our office by the hundreds. Gross. So, every few months, I would arm myself with plastic bags and Raid, and spend hours collecting refuse and swatting vermin. Whatever plan I'd had for the day was dashed until I emerged as lord of the flies.
In hindsight, this amounted to a massive waste of time. I may have won the battle, but the war wasn't in the garbage room, it was in the office--trying to make Iodine a successful company. I was fighting flies because, well, someone had to, and being the co-founder and CEO, I thought it would be a good example of how no task was too small.
But insect eradication wasn't a good use of my time, and was a world away from my skill set. And insects were only the beginning. Whether it was ordering supplies and snacks, or dealing with HR or the landlord, there was too often a must-do task distracting me from the product and strategy stuff that, come to think of it, was the reason I actually started the company.
Mastering the small stuff was my way of channeling the myth of the self-sacrificing founder who will attack anything and everything in the pursuit of revenue, growth, and product-market fit. In this fairy tale, the founder does all, and no task is too low. The company lives or dies by the founder's personal sacrifice.
But, in my experience, this martyrdom myth is destructive--not just to the founder but to the company as well. It stretches a founder too thin; the no-job-too-small approach means they aren't focusing on the skills that got them there. What's more, it distracts them with time-suck decisions, like which kind of Raid to buy at Safeway, when their decision-making capacity should be conserved for meaningful calls, like whether to cut prices to land that big contract or to pivot away from a struggling product.
Being a Swiss-Army-knife leader makes sense on paper when a team is small and everyone needs to pitch in. But, ultimately, I spent more time than I should have on banal tasks that somebody else--anybody else!--could have done.
If I had a redo, I'd be sure to hire someone to manage the day-to-day, and to delegate as much as possible to the rest of the team. We were thrifty with hiring, yet it would've been more resourceful to have hired a factotum to tackle the little things that kept pulling me away from the big things. And though we were a small team of barely a dozen, I could have trusted them to support me more--and to pitch in on stuff.
This is true not just at a startup. It applies to any scrappy team, even in larger, more mature companies. The optics are great when leaders roll up their sleeves. But success demands focus, and finding ways to efficiently delegate tasks--to colleagues, to new hires, or by outsourcing--is an essential skill of an effective leader. Your team wants to be part of building the product and the company; you need to be the construction manager, not the waste-removal specialist. Recognize that the leader's time and energy is one of the most precious resources the company has. Don't squander it swatting flies.