Why is the start-up world different? (or How to choose your advisors and employees)

November 10, 2010

I recently had coffee with a colleague who spent many years with large global consulting firms, specializing in large complex projects involving strategy, restructuring, governance and project management. He now has his own consulting firm which focuses on strategy, and primarily works with medium to large organizations.

Over coffee, he wanted to pick my brain about the start-up world. We had a great conversation and what I found incredibly insightful was his observation about a subtle difference in companies with whom we primarily engage. When he works with a medium or large organization, he is generally focused on an established company that is experiencing some sort of trouble or pressure to change - to change aspects of much of their business and not just a single area. One of his underlying assumptions about the engagement is generally that much of the talent, product and positive customer perception required for success already exists within the company.  Therefore, his focus is getting results from a strategy.

As we discussed my work with start-ups, he observed that assumptions for medium or larger companies generally don't hold true in start-ups or emerging companies. Building talent, product and positive customer perception is a work-in-progress for small tech companies.  As a result, developing strategies for these organizations is often the starting point for early stage consulting engagements.  

His insight should be a key learning for first time entrepreneurs who are founding start-ups, as well as, for executives and consultants who want to move into this sector as an employee, advisor, consultant or board member. When engaging talent for start-up and early stage companies, consider not only the person's experience but the underlying assumptions related to the types of companies and industries where they gained that experience. While they may have an incredible resume and a wealth of business acumen, the question you must ask is, "will it translate to the challenges you face?"

In the TV show MASH, Hawkeye often referred to the type of surgery done at the 4077 as "meatball surgery". Their goal was simply to keep the patient alive. The time and resources to do more were simply not available. In many ways, there are parallels to the start-up world. Complex strategy or elaborate execution plans are often beyond the human and capital resources available. This isn't a judgmental statement that this is "right or wrong", it is simply a fact for most first time start-ups. As a result, cut down or "meatball" versions of plans and strategies are required to move the company through plateaus, where at each level, their capabilities to execute will increase.  That is unless your start-up is one of the few that are very well funded organizations and can quickly acquire the talent and resources needed to execute across many fronts simultaneously.

I frequently meet with senior tech leaders who are running large complex business units. Many recognize that with Canada's limited large company tech sector, their career path will eventually led them to smaller businesses and yet, I have seen many of these very capable leaders struggle when they make the jump.  I believe it is often due to an adjustment period of learning the "new assumptions" on which they must base their actions. For some, they never adjust because like Charles Emerson Winchester III on MASH, doing meatball surgery is simply not what they want to do.

As a founder, when recruiting talent, regardless of whether they are employees, consultants or advisors, look past their resume and look at their assumptions about your business. This insight will help you choose the right team.


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