M-Theory: Your startup can benefit from a grunt’s long-term view Melanie Baker November 9, 2017 Columns, Communitech, Featured, M-Theory I’m a grunt. Or “individual contributor” in corporate speak. Managing people isn’t really my thing, and I’ve never been interested in entrepreneurship. I prefer tactics to strategy, organizing things to “vision.” You want me operating your operations. All of that makes it kind of ridiculous that I ever ended up working at startups. I started pondering that recently when my coworker published this post about redefining startups. We’re old, and he and I have shared many beers and many startup stories. We also share this philosophy of building for the long-term. Now, I’m not suggesting some mythical lifer utopia with a gold watch at the end. But the current hyper speed model and expectations for startups – is this really the best we can do? Is this model building the technology – and world — we want (or need)? Besides, most startups crash and burn. Is that what you’re so eager to dive into? That model sucks for us grunts. When everything’s supposed to be moving at the speed of light, there’s never time to build anything well, just enough to get it out the door. It turns all of us into That Kid. Remember when you were little, that kid who always made huge messes, wrecked his stuff (or yours), and was always covered in scrapes and bruises because he never listened, never slowed the f**k down for a minute, or learned from his mistakes? Yeah, that kid now has 20 identical hoodies and a valuation of $20 billion. But I digress. Grunts do unsexy stuff. We fix problems and answer questions and make the trains run on time. And in doing those things we learn a lot about people and the business. But it takes time. The insights from these kinds of people are invaluable, especially when it’s time to figure out the business’ evolution. But much time does not a hockey stick (growth) make. These people need time at one company, not picking up and moving on from Startup A to B to C with what they’ve managed to glean from one short stint after another. Short stints also make it difficult to develop career seniority and expertise. Believe me, very few people want to be the associate or coordinator when they’re 50. Better opportunities translate into huge loyalty and drive. With time, people have a chance to develop themselves, too, which will also make for better businesses. Let’s face it, a meat grinder only churns out one thing …. I honestly think that the current model, expectations, and mythology are making a big mess, and not just of the business landscape. This lack of patience, reasoning, and respect for something other than the Benjamins (or Bordens on this side of the border) is broadly degrading. This guy? He’s right. The really scary thing is most people have virtually zero understanding, but those who do? Are the ones making it happen. How many great things come from the startups that do win that acquisition lottery? Show me one good example where the product/service was allowed to live, got better, or was integrated into another product in a really customer-beneficial way. I’ll wait. I probably sound like a bitter old lady. That’s okay. Go do some cursory research on startup success rates based on founder age. Eh, sonny? A lot of startups don’t actually have a place for senior people (senior as in skills and experience – shut up) like me. The business doesn’t get mature enough and they can’t afford us. But not everyone wants to be doing something new tomorrow, and the day after. Grunts like stability. Some people want to build things right, then work on making them better. And, hell, to belong somewhere for a while. When you’re not planning for the long term, the concept of minimum viable product applies to your company and culture as much as to your product. People are just there to get the job done as long as needed; they’re not valued and investment-worthy resources. They’re disposable, and get treated that way. When the amount of funding you have only gives you so much runway, why waste it on stuff like benefits and vacation time and culture when those people aren’t going to be your concern in a year or two and you can just buy a foosball table? And if that’s how you treat your builders, chances are you’re treating your user or customer base with something like outright contempt. Without developing relationships, it’s a lot easier to screw over a data point than grandma, after all. And you don’t have to cultivate trust if you can hide how untrustworthy you are. Sure, there will always be a need to make money and navigate change, but the crux is what those resources and that change are intended for. Startup mentorship regularly harps on about the importance of discipline, which can take many forms: financial, business model focus, goal achievement, etc. But which way of doing things requires the real discipline? How can you learn discipline if you never have the luxury of being able to focus? Is it even possible when you’re never making choices with a good set of data or experience, and when everything will be completely different next month? You really want to learn discipline? Stick it out when things slow down a bit. When that adrenaline-fueled honeymoon period of initial awesomeness levels off. As this article puts it, when you’re working on the business, not in it. If financial discipline is hard for two years, imagine five, or 10. When you need to keep your flagship product viable and desirable and intelligently figure out how to evolve and diversify. Oh, and make enough money to pay 50 people decently, rather than five … barely. When you start getting legit competitors and the market changes and others are sexier, more agile, and have more resources than you do? Now that’s problem solving. Sure, in some circles thinking like a grunt won’t impress many. The perspective will be misunderstood, the value dismissed. But perhaps what you need is help figuring out who actually needs impressing, and how. Guess who can help you with that? M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or firstname.lastname@example.org.