If you're an early employee at a startup, one day you will wake up to find that what you worked on 24/7 for the last year is no longer the most important thing--you're no longer the most important employee, and process, meetings, paperwork, and managers and bosses have shown up. Most painfully, you'll learn that your role in the company has to change.
I've seen these transitions as an investor, board member, and CEO. At times, they are painful to watch and difficult to manage. Early in my career, I lived it as an employee, and I handled it in the worst possible way.
Here's what I wish I had known.
I had joined MIPS Computers, my second semiconductor company, as the VP of marketing and also took on the role of the acting VP of sales. During the first year of the company's life, I was a fireball--relentless in creating and pursuing opportunities--getting on an airplane at the drop of a hat to fly anywhere, anytime, to get a design win. I worked with engineering to try to find product/market fit (big endian or little endian?) and get the chip we designed into companies building engineering workstations--powerful personal computers--all while trying to refine how to find the right markets, customers, and sales process. I didn't get much sleep, but I was having the time of my life.
And after a year, there was good news. Our rent-a-CEO was being replaced by a permanent one. Our chip was nearing completion, and I had convinced early lighthouse customers to design it into their computers. I had done amazing things with almost no resources and got the company on the radar of every tech publication and into deals we had no right to be in. I was feeling 10-feet tall. Everything was great...until the new CEO called me in for a chat.
I don't remember much about the details, but I do remember hearing him tell me how impressed he was with what I had accomplished so far, then immediately the visceral feeling of shock and surprise when his next words were that now the company needed to scale, and I wasn't the right person to do that.... Wait! What??
For a minute, I couldn't breathe. I felt like I had been punched in the gut. How could that be? What do you mean I'm not the right person??? Hadn't he just listed all the great work I had done? He acknowledged it was a lot of progress but offered that it was a flurry of disconnected tactics without a coherent strategy. No one knew what I was doing, and I couldn't explain why I was doing it when asked. "You're just throwing stuff against the wall. That doesn't scale." I was speechless. Wasn't that what the first year of a startup was supposed to be like?
Scrambling to save my job, I regained the power of speech, and asked him if I could be the person to take the company to the next level. And to his credit (which I only appreciated years later) he agreed that while he was going to start a search, I could be a candidate for the job. And to top it off, he got me a coach to help me understand what taking it to the next level meant. In preparation, I remember buying all the management books I could find and reading what little literature there was at the time about how small company management transitioned into a larger one.
And herein lies the tale....
I vaguely remember going to lunch with my coach, a nice white-haired "old guy" who was trying to help me learn the skills to grow into the new job. The problem was, I had shut down. Even as we were meeting, I was obsessively thinking about the change in my role, my title, and my status. "I don't get it, I did all this work, and everything was great. Why does anything have to change?" But I never shared any of how I felt with my coach. To this day, I am really embarrassed to admit that I have no idea what my coach tried to teach me over multiple lunches and weeks. As we went to lunch, all I could think about was me and how I was being screwed. I literally paid zero attention. In my righteous anger I was unreachable.
I shouldn't have been surprised, but yet again I was, when a month later the CEO said that the report from the coach said I had a long way to go. The company was going to hire a VP of marketing. I was devastated.
It's not about change--it's about loss.
If you had asked me a decade later what had been going on in my head and why I handled this so badly, I would have simply said, that: 1) I was resistant to change, and 2) I had made this all about me and never once considered that our new CEO was right. All true--to a point.
It took me another decade to realize that, if I had been really honest with myself, it wasn't about fighting change at all. Heck, every day something new was happening at our startup. I was agile enough to keep up with innumerable changes and I was changing lots of things myself. It was actually about something much more personal I wouldn't admit to myself--it was that these changes made me fear what I was losing.
- I felt a loss of status and identity: I had been judged inadequate to continue in my role, and my stature and the value of my skills and abilities had dropped.
- I felt a loss of certainty: I was now competing to hold a job I thought was mine forever in the company. At least that's what I thought my business card said. Now I was adrift and didn't know what the future held.
- I felt a loss of autonomy: Up until now, I used my best judgment of what was needed and I was doing what I wanted, when I wanted it. I was fine making up a strategy on the fly from disconnected tactics. Now we were going to have plans and a strategy.
- I felt a loss of community: We had been a small, tight team who had bonded together under extreme pressure and accomplished amazing things. Now new people who knew none of that and appreciated little of it were coming in. They had little trust and empathy with us.
- I felt the process lacked fairness: No one had warned/told me that the job I was doing needed to change over time, and no one told me what those new skills were.
What was going on?
Researchers have found there's a link between social connection and physical discomfort within the brain. "Being hungry and being ostracized activate similar neural responses because being socially connected is necessary for survival," the researchers said. "Although a job is often regarded as a purely economic transaction, the brain experiences the workplace first and foremost as a social system."
Looking back over the decades, it's clear that the new CEO was right. Even though these losses triggered something primal, I did need to learn discipline, pattern recognition, time management, separating the trivial from the important, and the difference between tactics and strategy. I needed to learn to grow from being a great individual contributor to being a manager and then a leader. Instead, I walked away from learning any of it.
I probably added five unneeded years to my career.
What should I have done?
Today, it's understood that all startups go through a metamorphosis as they become larger companies. They go from organizations struggling for survival as they search for product/market fit, to building a repeatable and scalable business model, and then growing to profitability. And we are all hard-wired for a set number of social relationships. This mental wiring defines boundaries in growing an organization--get bigger than a certain size, and you need a different management system. The skills needed from employees differ at each stage.
What I wish I knew was that, if you're an early company employee, it's not likely that the skills you have on day one are the skills needed as the company scales to the next level. This sentence is worth reading multiple times, as no one--not the person who hired you, the VCs, or your peers--is going to tell you when you're hired that the company will likely outgrow you. Some (like your peers or even the founders) don't understand it, and others (the VCs) realize it's not in their interest to let you know. The painful reality is that products change, strategies change, people change...things have to change for your company to stay in business and grow.
What should my CEO have done?
When my CEO was explaining to me how the company needed to change to grow, he was explaining facts while I was processing deeply held feelings. The changes in the organization and my role represented what I was about to lose. And when people feel they're going to lose something deeply important, it triggers an emotional response, because change feels like a threat. It's not an excuse for my counterproductive behavior, but it explains why I acted out like I did.
Startup CEOs need to think about these transitions from day one and consider how to address the real sense of loss these transitions mean to early employees.
Loss of status? It's almost impossible to take away a title from someone, give it to someone else, and still retain that employee. Think hard about whether titles need to be formal (VP of engineering, VP of marketing, VP of sales, etc.) before the company finds product/market fit and/or tens of people--as you can almost guarantee that these people won't have those roles and titles when you scale.
Loss of certainty? Startups and VCs have historically operated on the "I'll deal with this later" principle in letting early employees know what happens as the company scales. The common wisdom is that no one would want to work like crazy knowing that they might not be the ones to lead as the company grows. I call this the Moses problem: You work for years to get the tribe to the promised land, but you're not allowed to cross over. The company needs to give formal recognition for those individuals who brought the tribe to the promised land.
Loss of autonomy? This is the time you and your employees get to have a discussion about the next steps in their career. Do they want to be an individual contributor? Manager of people and process? Special projects? These shouldn't be random assignments but instead offer a road map of possible choices and directions.
Loss of community? Your original hires embody the company culture. Unless you have them capture the unique aspects of the culture, it will become diluted and disappear among the new hires. Declare them cultural co-founders. Help them understand the community is growing and they're the ambassadors. Have them formalize it as part of a now-needed on-boarding process as the company grows. And most importantly, make sure they are celebrated as the team that got the company to where it is now.
Loss of fairness? Just telling employees "a change is going to come" it is not sufficient. What are the new skills needed when you scale from Search to Build to Grow--from tens to hundreds and then thousands of people? How can your existing employees gain those new skills?
- VCs, founders, and CEOs now recognize that startups grow through different stages: Search, Build and Grow.
- They recognize that employees need different skills at each stage,
- and that some of the original employees won't grow into the next stage.
- But while these changes make rational sense to the CEO and the board, to early employees these changes feel like a real and tangible personal loss:
- Loss of Status and Identity
- Loss of Community
- Loss of Autonomy
- Loss of Certainty
- Loss of Fairness
- CEOs need to put processes in places to acknowledge and deal with the real sense of loss.
- These will keep early employees motivated--and retained
- and build a stronger company.
- For employees, how you handle change will affect the trajectory of your career and possibly your net worth.