Hiring & Retention

When The Team Revolts

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Jason Lemkin

Start-ups aren’t democracies, no matter what some employees may think.  The CEO is the CEO, and the founders are the founders.

But start-ups also aren’t IBM or Cisco.  Or even, anything like DropBox or Uber or Box or Hubspot, not organizationally at least.

From 1-10 employees, it’s a family.  After 150 or so, somewhere in there, it starts to become a traditional heirarchical structure.

revoltIn between … from 10ish employees to 1X0ish … a start-up is something unique.  Something organic.  A couple of platoons.  An organization that has come together voluntarily to take on a mission, at least in part.  Later, it’s just a job.  Maybe a cool job, but just a job.  But from 10-150, it’s no longer a (squabbling?) family, but for many of your team, it’s more than just the best way to pay the rent.

And in this phase, most likely, at least once — the troops will revolt.

They’ll revolt when you make a senior or mid-level hire that as a group, they simply cannot suffer one day longer.

It’s happened to me, and I think for whatever my faults, I have a pretty high EQ and am a half-decent manager.   So my guess is it will happen to you, too.  In fact, it’s happened with every start-up I’ve ever worked with.

The three times it happened to me:

  • A very senior engineer that we just HAD to have.  In my first start-up, there was one engineer we had no choice about.  He was literally the only person on the planet with the specific scaling experience we needed.  Everyone hated him.  But I forced us to hire him, over my CTO’s strong objection and my VPE’s grudging acknowledgment we had no choice.  It did work — we got the scaling done.  But then, once completed, the team turned on him.  One day at a company meeting, he snidely called out everyone in the meeting (myself included, but that’s part of your founder job, to suck it up).  It was just one burnt bridge too far.  Everyone revolted within 20 minutes of that meeting.  I didn’t know why at the time — but I fired him that day.  It was clear anything else was even worse.  Even without a back-up plan.
  • A senior product lead that engineering wouldn’t work with.  Another time, a rather long time ago, I had a senior product hire that was pretty brilliant.  But not someone that could manage engineering.  Friction between engineering and product is good, if they aren’t the same function (and in SaaS, I don’t believe they should be).  But engineering does have to respect product, at least begrudgingly.  In this case, the product lead was both a bit acerbic and remote.  That made managing engineers by will just too hard.  One day, they simply had enough.  It was clear I’d lose the team.  That day, she had to go.
  • A senior marketing manager that offended everyone culturally.  I think start-up culture is what you make of it.  It’s the people you hire, not the number of foosball games you play, how often you drink nitro stout together, or even how Teal u think u are.  And sometimes, you hire someone so far from the values and the culture of the rest of the team, they simply cannot work with him.  This happened to me once.  It was a hire I wasn’t really in favor of, but it was an experiment.  You have to try new things.  The experiment lasted 7 weeks.  The borg completely rejected him.  And one day I walked into work at 8am, and it was clear, the troops had revolted.  By 8:30am, I had to make a change.
  • Plus for Every Start-Up: the classic non-hands-on-enough VP hired too early.  You see this all the time.  Linda is a great VP of Marketing or Sales at Box or Salesforce or Netsuite or wherever.  She comes into your Hot 17 Person Start-up.  And does no actual work herself.  And no one will work with her.

If you notice a theme here, it’s not about competence, not usually.  Incompetent non-management hires are shrugged off by the troops.  They just ignore him or her.

And you have to try things, and take risks, and make stretch hires.  And again, it’s not a democracy.  Not everyone you hire has to be loveable, or even, likeable.

So someday, no matter how careful a CEO / founder / hiring manager you are, you’ll hire someone that the troops just … revolt on.

My only suggestion and learning is don’t fight it.  Understand that when you are 500+ employees, people will expect a certain amount of incompetence embedded in the org.  But not in that crucial I’m Doing This To Be Part of Something Special phase.

When you are in that phase, and the troops revolt, you aren’t actually fully in control, even as CEO.  Because if you lose them, you lose everything.  And if you don’t act, they won’t believe in you, that you let this one “horrible” person stay on too long.

When they revolt — they “win”.

Let that employee go, that day.

Or at least, if you totally disagree, think about what I’m saying.  And at least let her go as soon as you can.

Published on September 14, 2015
  • I agree with the fundamental notion that if a team member does not “fit” and is antagonizing or decreasing everyone’s work satisfaction, this person needs to be dealt with, quickly and efficiently, to avoid further issues.

    What I am struggling with is this notion that the first employees dictate who fits in or who doesn’t. My team includes a wide variety of personalities, but my first hires were all engineers/developers. If it was up to them we would not have any sales or marketing, we would be changing technology or frameworks every 3 months to the “coolest” thing around, and we would not hire anyone that did not reach level 50 of Gears of Wars Horde in insane mode.

    Founders and early stage CEOs are scared that if they lose one or more of their lead engineers the whole company crumbles, and they forget over time that the company was built on more than technology. It was built on ideas, concepts, perseverance, sales, planning, investment, marketing, relationships, and technology. The early employees may play a critical part in 1 or 2 of the above, but that doesn’t make them right nor does it make them critical.

    Reality is that a founder/CEO has to be ready to lose their top engineers 2-3 years into the venture. Why? Well the reason why those top engineers joined in the first place was to experience something new, to build something cool, to try new technology to be the “startup” team.

    How long do you think they will stick around once their job becomes managing other engineers, attend meetings, helping customers or fixing bugs? Not long in my opinion.

    So I don’t think you will lose everything. In fact I think a true leader needs to plan for a few revolts, and yes some they will give in others they will squash and turn them around.

    Just my two cents.

    • Jason Lemkin

      Yeah I think there are different “levels” of revolt. You have to force the team to grow, expand and take in new types of people. Even if they don’t want then. But if the MAJORITY rejects someone, so fiercely, after they’ve have 90, 180, 200 days … I still think you may have no choice until u are big enough to have multiple layers of management. At least, you may experience this, so it’s something to think about. You won’t be the first if and when you do.

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