How to keep your place in the maturing startup

Original author: Steve Blank
  • Transfer
If you are one of the first employees of a startup, be prepared that one day everything that you have worked around the clock in recent years for, will cease to be crucial. Your position will not be so important, and in the company itself there will be new managers and bosses, business meetings, paper work. And, most painfully, you will understand that your role in the project must change completely.

The author of the article has been able to observe such changes from the perspective of an investor, a member of the board of directors and a general director. He notes that sometimes this process is quite painful and difficult in terms of management. At the dawn of his career, the author, being an employee, himself went through a similar experience and “got out of this situation in the worst way”.
In this material, the author shares what knowledge he would like to have then.

I joined MIPS Computers, the second semiconductor manufacturing company in my career, as a marketing director, and also assumed the responsibilities of a current sales director. Throughout the first year of the company's life, I worked as an institution, grabbing at any opportunity and creating new ones. Without hesitation and at any time I got on a plane and flew anywhere, so long as our project came to success. I worked closely with engineers to make the product in demand, and tried to achieve the use of our microcircuits in the projects of companies that created powerful engineering workstations. In parallel, I was looking for the right markets, customers, and sales processes. I could not sleep, of course, but it was one of the best periods of my life.
And now, a year later - the good news.The temporary general has finally come to be replaced by a permanent one. Our chip was almost complete, and I convinced important customers to use it in their computers. Almost without any resources, I achieved impressive results and made the company talk about major technological publications. This is not counting transactions that projects like ours usually did not dream of. I was in seventh heaven ... until the new CEO summoned me to talk.
I forgot all the details, but I remember well how the director first said how impressed he was with my achievements. And I was deeply shocked and surprised when immediately after the director said that the company needed to expand, but I was not fit for this role ... Stop! What?!
The next minute I could barely breathe, as if I had been hit in the stomach. What does “no good” mean? Hasn’t just why the gendir himself didn’t list my achievements? He acknowledged that progress was evident, but he described it as a set of unrelated tactics without any consistent strategy. No one ever knew exactly what I was doing, and I could not explain why I did this. “You try everything. This approach does not scale. ” I had no words. Isn't that how the first year of a startup should be?
When the gift of speech returned, I asked the general if I could try to become the person who would take the company to a new level. And, one must give credit to the director (I appreciated it only years later), although he said that he would begin to search for suitable candidates, I could also claim this role. In addition, he found a coach who would explain to me what it means to “take a new level.” I remember how, preparing for a change, I bought all the books on management that I could find, and read all the available literature on the topic of transforming a small company into a large one.

And then events developed so ...

I vaguely remember having dinner with a coach, a pleasant older man who taught me the skills needed in the new environment. The problem was that I was deaf to his words. I was tormented by the thought of changing my role, position and position. "I do not understand. I did a great job and everything was great. Why does something have to change at all? “But the coach didn’t learn about these experiences.
I am ashamed to admit, but I don’t remember at all what this man tried to teach me during our dinner meetings, which lasted several weeks. I then only thought about myself and how difficult it is for me now. And anger made me immune to trying to help me.
A month later, the CEO said that the coach rated my results as “I still have a lot to learn,” and I was again unpleasantly surprised. The company was going to hire a new marketing director.

I felt destroyed and left the company.

It's not about change, but about loss.

If after a few years I was asked why I had brought the matter to such a bad finale, I would have answered that
a) resisted the changes,
b) put myself in the first place in this situation and would not even allow the thought that the new director was right.

Yes, these comments are fair, but still do not fully describe the situation. Only ten years later, I realized that if I’ve been honest, it’s not about trying to fight changes. In our startup, something new happened daily. And I was flexible enough to keep pace with countless changes, and I myself have changed a lot. The reason lay deeper, but I was not ready to admit this to myself. The fact is that the changes made me fear of losing what I had at that moment.
  • I experienced a loss of status and a unique position . I was considered unfit for work at the current position, and this devalued my skills and seriously hurt my self-esteem.
  • I lost confidence in the future. I found myself involved in a competition for a place in a company that I thought would remain with me forever. The text on my business card spoke about it. But I was at a crossroads and did not know what the future holds for me.
  • I was experiencing a loss of autonomy . Before the turning point, I myself defined the scope of work and did what I wanted and when I wanted. I was completely satisfied with the need to compose a strategy of unrelated tactics on the go. And suddenly the company had specific plans.
  • I was experiencing a loss of team spirit . We were a small group, battle-hardened, cohesive and achieved incredible results. Later, new people appeared in the company, knowing nothing about our path and almost unable to appreciate it. The team did not have such confidence and empathy, as before.
  • I thought that the change process was not very fair . Nobody warned me that work will change over time and what new skills I will need as a result.

What really happened

Scientists have identified a connection in the brain that explains physical discomfort due to social relationships. “The feeling of hunger and social isolation will activate similar neural reactions, since social connections are necessary for survival. Despite the fact that work is often viewed as economic exchange, the brain senses it primarily as a social system. ”
Returning to the situation a few decades later, I understand that the CEO was right. Despite the fact that social losses awakened something primitive in me, I really needed to learn discipline, time management, the ability to see patterns, separate the important from the secondary and understand the difference between tactics and strategy. I had to grow out of the skin of an effective, but isolated employee, becoming first a manager, and then a leader. But I just walked away from trying to learn all these things.
This step has slowed my career for five years.

What should i do

Growing up, all startups go through certain metamorphosis. They start with a struggle for survival, search for a market niche, develop a sought-after product, and then switch to creating a mass, expandable business model and reach a profit. As for people, the number of social relationships of one person is limited . The human mental warehouse determines the boundaries of the growth of the organization: with the achievement of a certain threshold, it will be necessary to change the management system. The skills required by employees are also different at different stages.

Most of all it would be useful for me to know that it is very unlikely that the skills relevant for the early stage will remain in demand when the company moves to a new level.. This offer should be re-read several times, since no one - neither the person who hired you, nor the venture investors, nor your startup colleagues - will say that the company will outgrow you. Some of them, for example, colleagues or even founders, do not understand this, while others, such as venture capital investors, do not tell such things in their own interests.
The harsh reality is that products, people, and strategies change. Companies will have to transform to stay in business and grow.

How did the CEO build a conversation?

When my CEO spoke about the necessary changes and growth of the company, he was operating on facts, while I was experiencing personal experiences. I considered changing my role in the organization as a loss. And when people feel that they are about to lose something valuable, they react very emotionally, because it is perceived as a threat. Of course, this does not justify my counterproductive behavior, but partly explains it.
It is important for heads of startups to anticipate such situations and, from day one, to consider options for helping them to overcome the real sense of loss arising from early employees .
Loss of statusIf you take a position from a person and give it to someone else, then it will be almost impossible to keep an employee in the company. Before introducing official positions like technical director, director of marketing, sales, etc., consider whether it should be done while the company is looking for its place in the market and has not hired at least a few dozen people. It is safe to say that people working in these positions at the beginning of the journey will surely lose them during the transition to the next stage.
Loss of confidence in the future.Historically, startups and venture capital investors postpone for later discussion what will happen when a company grows. Hardly anyone will want to work as a fanatic, having learned that in the growth stage he is likely to lose his place. I call this the problem of Moses. You have been working for years to bring your people to the promised land, but you are refused when you want to stay on it. Some formal recognition of the merits of those team members whose actions allowed start-ups to get to the desired result should be introduced.
Loss of autonomy.Management should discuss career steps with employees. Do they want to benefit by working on their own? Or want to manage people and processes? Special projects? Instead of arbitrary assignments, management must offer employees a specific plan with various options.
Loss of collective spirit . The first employees of the company lay its cultural foundation. But this legacy is easily lost with the arrival of new people, if you do not ask the “old men” to fix its unique aspects. Declare them cultural co-founders. Help them understand that the team is growing, and they should play the role of special representatives. Let them help with the study of the cultural characteristics of the company when they receive new employees. And, very importantly, make sure that the first team members are always remembered as the people who helped the company become what it is now.
Feeling the injustice of the process . It is not enough just to tell employees that “change is coming.” What new skills will they need when the company starts moving to a new stage? Or when will it expand to hundreds or thousands of people? How can current employees acquire these skills?


1. Venture investors, founders and directors understand that all modern startups go through several stages: search, strengthening and growth.

  • They realize that at each of these stages, employees need different skills.
  • Some of the first employees of a startup will not be able to go to the next level.

2. Despite the fact that for the CEO and the board of directors this situation looks logical and understandable, early employees perceive these changes as a real and tangible loss.

  • Loss of status and unique position.
  • Loss of collective spirit.
  • Loss of autonomy.
  • Losing confidence in the future.
  • Feeling the injustice of change.

3. Management should identify such situations and assist staff.

  • Thus, early employees will be more motivated and will remain in the company.
  • And the company itself will become stronger.

4. Employees should understand that the right attitude to such situations significantly affects the future career and the benefits that they can bring to the company.


Also popular now: