Monday, May 11, 2015

Fitting into a startup culture is not for everyone !

It is probably the best of times for budding young entrepreneurs; they have ideas ranging from good to great, esoteric, far-fetched, imaginative, hair brained, stupid, and finally the ones that get you to “why did I not think of this” ! Funding seems to be chasing ideas across the board, valuations are going sky high; and then you meet someone who is struggling to get angel or series A funding. The grass is green but not across the new ventures field, there are many hidden brown and bald patches not visible from a distance.

Over the years I had the opportunity to work with many startup ventures though as a customer who believed in their story and vision. Some of them were into services, some wanted to build products, and there was a group that believed that they could change the world. Across all of them the excitement, enthusiasm and passion was palpable and infectious. They loved the fact that they had my attention and business, hoping to make it big someday; and some of them indeed did scale up giving me and my team a sense of joy.

Startups got a little more rope from me in comparison to larger players; at times they got second chances. I listened to their dreams and where possible gave them some insights from the journeys I had seen and my own. Almost all of them delivered to promise and some more, with quality of work and speed of execution that mostly the young are capable of. What they lacked in experience, they made up with a fail faster approach. I did not know of travails of their teams, internal culture, struggles, or their support ecosystem.

At a startup – the CEO and CTO – both approached me separately seeking advice on conflicts that had started increasing to the extent that a split was imminent. Each one believed the company’s success was because of his efforts and the other was not contributing; they resisted ideas from the other on selling and product roadmap respectively. Suddenly after the initial success, they found it difficult to live with each other. None was willing to bend, I suggested that they find an amicable way to settle their differences or go separate ways, which they did.

In the last year I have worked with multiple startups in various capacities from coaching, mentoring, product and/or technology advisor, go-to-market, writing product brochures, defining enterprise use cases, or rescuing them from the technology quicksand. Each startups had a different persona, culture, challenges and opportunities. Similar to large enterprises, the senior most person’s behaviour and mannerisms defined the company. For some of the older folks who had joined them, the generation gap was a challenge.

I met up with one senior industry leader who had given up a juicy MNC position to join a VC funded startup; he had a great track record in market expansion and acquiring customers. He brought maturity to the discussion which connected with customers, the CIOs. The going was good and that brought the company into prominence. Success plays differently with people; some change for good, some remain the same, and a few start believing that they are invincible. My friend’s exit was the trigger for our meeting.

Ipso facto analysis would reveal differing dimensions, the reality was that the conflict arose from success and divergent views of next steps. Achieving scale was necessary to take the company to the next level; the veteran knew what to do, had done it before, the CEO had other ideas and he thrust them on the team with obvious results. Observing the senseless and unaligned movement, employees urged the veteran to intervene. He attempted to rationally reason out to no avail; regretfully he quit leaving a trail of other exits.

I realize working with startups require lots of patience; they have a mind of their own and you may disagree with their views and direction. They will take your experience as an enabler or an anchor based on their frame of reference; you need to accept that they will not always do what you advised. Your success formula from the past and large enterprises are at times discarded for uncharted waters. They will listen to you and may end up doing something else. Allow them to make mistakes even if they are obvious to you; they learn that way.

The young and the restless are a different breed; most of them are born to a digital world and followers of Robert Frost !

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