Startup teams can change extremely quickly, especially when they’re scaling up. It’s not unusual for a business to double, triple or quadruple in size, in a matter of months, once they’ve got some funding in place. As a founder, this is what you’ve been working towards, bringing you one step closer to achieving your vision. But handling this rapid change can also be stressful, and growing pains are a natural part of the process.
Fast growth can be particularly tough on the original team who see the business they joined turn into something quite different, almost overnight. In those early days when you’re a very small unit, everybody feels involved in every aspect of the business and always knows what everybody else is up to. Naturally then as the team gets bigger, that feeling goes away a little by little until all of a sudden… “back in the day things were different”. As new personalities and characters enter the business, the culture inevitably starts to evolve.
It’s at this point that original team members might start to get restless, as they wonder whether this new company is really something they want to be part of. So as a founder, how you manage the transition is critical to keeping everybody onside so that you don’t suffer from premature attrition.
Here are some of the most common growing pains I see in startups:
One of the big changes that can affect people is suddenly feeling like conversations are happening in other rooms and that the original openness and transparency has gone. While, this shift is usually for practical reasons, such as not wanting to disturb or distract other team members, nonetheless it can still make some people feel left out or alienated from what is going on. It takes intentional changes in team norms (such as better all-team meetings) to counteract this and keep communications wide open and clear.
Being in an early team is an intense time. You get involved in a lot of different things, make more mistakes and develop a lot faster than you would in a more established company. People that choose to work in startups usually thrive in this environment, but the danger is that they’ll become impatient when they feel like they aren’t growing and developing as quickly. A year can feel like a long time in startup land, and after that time, people can start to think: “Okay, what’s next?” They’re usually looking for either more money (as a reward for how much they have developed) and/or more progression, but it can be difficult to offer these in a business that is still short on budget and structure. Having opportunities to progress in an environment that is keeping the ‘hierarchy’ as flat as possible, is a challenge in itself!
Your first few team members are usually the kind of people who can get stuck into a broad range of activities, often making things up as they go along (the environment is ever-changing) and trying various tactics to see what works. When the business gets some funding, your original marketing person, or product person, shouldn’t automatically become head of marketing or the head of product. Instead, you’re likely to want somebody who has been there, done that and knows what great looks like for a bigger company. However, if not handled correctly, those original team members could be left feeling that they’re not good enough and will feel undervalued even if they realise that they don’t have the full skill-set yet. It’s never been a problem before after all.
Linked to this, with a sudden influx of new people, particularly at more senior levels, existing team members can also start to feel distanced from the founders. Having spent so long working directly with them, and probably having joined the company because of them, this can be hard to get used to.
So how should founders handle it?
You may, of course, reach the point where a team member has been with you for three or four years and is starting to wonder whether they’ll still be employable if they stay. Yes, three to four years is very good retention in startup land! And if they’re genuinely no longer right for the business, chances are that the feeling is mutual - and there’s little benefit in fighting it.
It’s inevitable that most team members will move on eventually, and usually, all you can do is give them an amazing and productive experience and wish them well in whatever they go on to do. Some companies, understanding that opening the door to that conversation early can pave the way to openness and honesty in relationships, raise the issue on day one. Avoiding having a “leaving conversation” as a taboo topic increases the chances of you knowing far earlier.
Most startups want to hire people with a diverse range of experiences behind them, which means accepting that those same individuals are inevitably going to want to move on again at some point. That’s just life, so don’t take it personally. If you’ve given them a productive and fulfilling experience then who knows - one day they might come back or at the very least, be very public advocates for your brand.
Anouk Agussol, Founder and CEO of Unleashed
Food for thought
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