Keeping the Fire Burning

This post was conceived and co-written by Ed Tekeian (former VP Engineering at Brontes), a brilliant engineering leader, great all-around guy, and one of the key reasons our product saw the light of day. (also the only year-round surfer in New England I know)

Looking back, one of the things we did well at times, and not-so-well at others was keeping the entrepreneurial flame alive as the company grew. I’m proud that even 3 years after we sold, we had virtually no attrition. Here are some of our observations and learning’s:

Lift off – Founding team and first few hires

When we finally secured angel financing, we moved into the most inexpensive office space we could find. We had about 1,000 square feet, almost no natural light and an ensuite bathroom (not as fancy as it sounds) in which Doug (VP Hardware) had to scoot his chair in each time someone wanted to use the head. Those were the days!

In the early days, the founders come to work everyday completely dedicated to getting the company off the ground – it’s their baby. The first hires are those with a lot of reach and flexibility; they’re “best athletes.” They don’t think much about what is or isn’t their job description – this is their mantra. For this group, career growth and the development of the company are one in the same. In the early days, HR primarily means recruiting and occasionally planning an event to get folks out of the office. Most of the culture evolves organically. In our case, we ate lunch together (even when we were as big as 15) nearly every day. That made it easy to share food, information and form a bond as a team.

Middle of the marathon – Hires 20-50

After things have gotten going and the risk of a first year flameout is gone (perhaps Series A or B is in the bank), new hires join because they feel there’s modest stability, structure and a way of doing things. Some of these hires are looking to be in a startup, some are accepting a job in a new, small company. For the first time, career development has to be considered, in addition to the overarching goal of launching a successful product. Even for original members, career development may be needed to combat burnout. How do you achieve this in light of the daily pace of a company?

With the group-wide lunches a thing of the past, it’s important to have 1-on-1 discussions and fireside chats where everyone shares their concerns openly. Promotions and pay increases must be periodically considered. The founding (or senior) team needs to have periodic get-togethers; we did dinners at each other’s homes every month or two. Lastly, the founders need to get to know everyone (we both interviewed almost 100% of candidates even beyond 50 employees). At this size, the company’s too small to get lazy.

Turning “13” – 50+ employees and post-acquisition

In our experience, this is the hardest phase. It’s like turning 13 – you’re not a teenager but not really an adult either. In this phase, the managers need to think about lateral movement of staff to new responsibilities. Staff need to see that there’s a path to doing something new – perhaps an Engineer is interested in working as a Product Manager. Make it clear that management isn’t the only track – new skills can be more valuable to a startup than more managers. Commit at the senior team level to a few key promotions each year. People without co-founder status or single digit employee numbers need this to be connected to the heart of the company. It shows the whole staff that anyone can progress, not just the co-founders. In the early days, attrition doesn’t enter the vocabulary, but at this point, the senior team has to actively build a deep bench of leaders who can step in as people go.

One of the most valuable assets a start-up has over a large competitor is the fact that its team really cares – it’s more than a job. Nurturing this start-up “pixie dust” through the entrepreneurial roller coaster is tough but the rewards are incredible.

2 thoughts on “Keeping the Fire Burning

  1. Great post addressing one of the hardest parts of growing a startup: hiring, and nurturing/preserving the energy and culture that allowed you hire and grow in the first place. Love the three tiers or breakpoints you reference as those are when the gowing pains kick in and have to be addressed

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