One of the best parts of working at a startup is the intense collaboration. When there are only a handful of employees it’s impossible not to be involved in every aspect of the business. It’s not uncommon to see a programmer writing marketing copy, an intern working on a fundraising deck, and the CEO buying the toilet paper.
When you’re in a cramped office space, there are no closed-door meetings. Everyone is a part of every discussion. This is great if you have good chemistry. Fueled by adrenaline (and pizza and beer), you build off one another’s thoughts and come up with creative approaches to bulldoze any obstacle in your way. Decisions come fast and furious with good chemistry. But when you have bad chemistry, problem solving becomes individualized; egos trump common sense, and obstacles multiply exponentially.
There are so many critical decisions to make in the first six months of a startup. Designing your brand, constructing your mission statement, defining your audience, picking a fundraising strategy, developing a marketing plan, choosing a technology platform, etc. And don’t forget about the small, yet plentiful, decisions. Do you send a Christmas card or holiday card? Should job applicants send an email to jobs@ or careers@? Should you bold the opt-out link in your e-newsletters? Do you give away pens or keychains? Should you get a foosball table, or will that scare away investors?
When you have a bad chemistry, these decisions take forever. One person thinks you should send a Christmas card. Another says no, just send a holiday card. Another suggests sending one card to Christians, and another one to everyone else. How about a red and green card that says “Happy holidays!” Or maybe you just do a New Years Eve card to avoid the conflict. After debating for a few days, everyone is worn down and you decided to do nothing. Now, I’ve never heard of startup that blamed their failure on a bad Christmas card, but I have heard of plenty who said they ran out of money before being able to execute on their plan.
The thing with startups is that it’s super easy to become opinionated when you’re dealing with unchartered territory. If someone thinks the logo should be red, not blue, they can point to all of the successful companies with a red logo. Those who like blue can do the same. It’s easy to google your opinion on virtually any topic and come up with supporting “facts”. Yet, for your startup, there are no facts. Nobody can dig up that data from ten years back, when a red logo was been tested and sales declined by 20%. You have no precedents; everything you do is a test. You can try to mimic other successful companies, and avoid mistakes of failures, but ultimately, you have to make hard decisions about your company – even if that means taking a shot in the dark.
When you make a bad decision — and you will make plenty of them — fail fast. Recognize when something isn’t working, figure out why, then change course appropriately. The costly failures occur when egos or ignorance prevent your startup from being responsive to what the market is telling you. And yes, chemistry plays a critical role here as well. Admitting a mistake is easy when you have good chemistry. You’re rewarded for fixing a problem. But when you have bad chemistry, it becomes your mistake. You were the bastard who won that epic logo argument, and now we have to redesign it (or worse, go on pretending that it’s fine). You fucked up and if you continue to fuck up, you will be banished from the island forever.
You know what happens when that type of blame game begins? Everyone becomes scared of making deicions, as it may cost them their job. They stop weighing in on the discussion, waiting for someone else to screw up so that they can call them out on it.
Game over, before it even began.