We like the truth-telling in the new book by celebrated VC Ben Horowitz who has called several familiar management mantras “just stupid.” So we thought we would share three comments we hear at startups that are just false – or hopelessly naïve–and then our take on how to interpret them.
1. We have no politics. This timeless adage is complete fiction. Like every family, every startup has its characters, power structures and power plays. The key to success in any organization – large or small – is to balance the effort you spend on your ideas, deliverables and internal advocacy with the time it takes to make sure your ideas and deliverables are completely aligned with the goals of the company. Our advice: In other words, we’ve seen plenty of good ideas die because they weren’t sold and supported by the right folks in the organization. Do your homework on how the organization makes decisions to be sure you’re cultivating support among the key influencers.
2. We have a very flat organization. This one makes absolutely no sense. Every startup starts out flat, if only because it’s tough to have a hierarchical org chart when you only have six employees. But very quickly you’ll have a hierarchy of: founders; C-level (C_O); V-level (VP of__) and Directors—if not in title then in practice. The founders are the passionate, single-minded believers that raised the money and quit their day jobs to build a new company around a new idea: they get more than one vote. Every startup has people in the organization who, despite the title on their business card, get to weigh in on decisions and influence the outcome. If you’ve joined a startup and you haven’t figured out how to tap into the founders’ brain trust in order to sell your ideas…well just make sure you keep your resume updated on LinkedIn. Our advice: after you figure out the “what” of your job, don’t get seduced into thinking that you can “just make it happen” by lunging ahead to implement your ideas. Take the time to figure out “how” you’re going to sell your idea and advocate with the key decision makers and influencers on the startup team (the ones with the most votes).
3. There are no stupid questions. Actually, there are. Or, put another way, “There are stupid people answering questions.” How many meetings have you been in where a new-hire asks a question that’s just off-the-wall. And, yes, when you’ve just joined an organization, you can slow progress (as well as make a lousy first impression) by jumping in too early. Our advice: if you’re new on the team, get the lay of the land first. Learn the product. Listen a lot. And pay attention to the team that’s customer facing. Then after you’ve gotten integrated into the team, dive in with your questions. That way, you’ll be more credible and you’ll have real context for your questions and observations.