Employees are the key to success. There, that’s a nice simple statement, no window-dressing and no ambiguity. But it’s amazing how many founders and co-founders just don’t get this.
I didn’t fifteen years ago until it was pointed out to me over a very expensive lunch, a lunch which, by the way, I was paying for, while listening to the sage advice of two very wealthy individuals who had sold their businesses for multi-millions of pounds.
The penny began to drop when they asked how many people we employed. I answered none as I and my business partner (who was also at the lunch) did everything ourselves. It wasn’t easy, but like most founders, we did it with the passion and dedication of the truly ambitious and we were very proud of that fact.
“Then you don’t have a business,” was their shocking reply. They went on to drive the point home saying: “While you’re sat here buying us lunch, what’s happening in your business? Nothing!” They told us in no uncertain terms that we needed to go and employ people, not only to keep the lights on while we weren’t on the treadmill, but also to prove that we had a business that could grow. After all, two founders working their fingers to the bone is not a scalable business. So, lesson one: if you don’t employ anyone, you don’t have a scalable business.
But that’s easier said than done of course and we, like most founders who are merrily doing everything themselves, found plenty of reasons not to change things: we can’t afford to employ anybody; it will take too long to train them; they won’t do as good a job as us; what if we choose the wrong person?
So, lesson one: if you don’t employ anyone, you don’t have a scalable business.
We did choose the wrong person first of all and that was frustrating and expensive. But then, almost by accident, we came across a bright young man who’d set himself up to help exhibitors at a conference we were attending. He had a system to collect data about visitors to your stand using an iPad – it might seem twee now, but this was a few years ago and it was kind of cutting edge back then. Unfortunately for him, and us as his customer, the software was horrendous, the event Wi-Fi even worse and the whole thing was a disaster. But what shone through was how he behaved in these circumstances. How he went about figuring out the problem, how he communicated and kept us in the loop, and how he eventually decided to give up on his hi-tech solution, and equipped us with pen and paper to get on with the job. He didn’t lose sight of our need by obsessing about his solution, and we realised we’d found our guy.
Sure, it took a while to train him as he didn’t have the technical skills we thought such a person would need, but he was bright and engaging and creative. He soon became an incredible asset and proved beyond doubt that as founders we didn’t have to do everything. It proved that we could hire people and they would do a great job for us, it was a revelation, and it is liberating. Not to say a distinct relief to have somebody else on your team you can trust to get on with things. So, lesson two: you have to find and employ the right people.
There’s an old proverb that says: “Too many chiefs and not enough Indians.” But, ironically, the reverse can be true in a startup if the founders are too busy behaving like Indians and not spending enough time thinking like chiefs. Employing staff frees your time to start strategizing and behaving like the owner of your business. There’s no badge of honour for managing to work a 60-plus hour week, it’s what you do during those hours that counts. So, consider those first hires as giving your business full-time bosses, rather than additional employees - and for a very reasonable cost when you think about it. So, lesson three: Employing people IN your business, allows you to start working ON your business.
Those first few employees will receive your time and attention in a way no subsequent employees are going to, much like the first child in a large family. In those early days, with a handful of staff, your role is very much like the head of a family. You’ll have a personal relationship with each person, give them coaching and encouragement, and you’ll be intimately involved in their business lives. These are great times as you’ll hopefully have a cohesive team who will go the extra mile for you, even when times are tough.
There’s no badge of honour for managing to work a 60-plus hour week, it’s what you do during those hours that counts.
However, don’t expect too much, remember this is your business and not theirs. You’re not a manager able to wring out the old adage ‘I’m not asking you to do anything I wouldn’t do myself’, you’re the business owner. You’re a bit crazy by definition as you started your own business, so for sure you’re going to do stuff most people in their right mind wouldn’t. But don’t expect your employees to see the world the same way you do, and remember that employment is a two-way contract. They provide you with diligent hard work as employees, so you can get on with being the boss and running the business. It means giving them the tools and environment to do a great job, and letting them get on with it. It means not burdening them with your worries and frustrations as a business owner and it means keeping up your end of the bargain with ‘small things’, like paying people on time. So, lesson three: employment is a two-way contract; you have to keep up your end of the bargain.
It’s inevitable if you employ people, that over time some of them will leave to take other jobs. This is the society we live in. But it never ceases to surprise me how many employers take this as a personal slight that somebody could ever want to leave their company. But this is natural attrition, unless you’re doing something very wrong. People will leave for a larger salary or new experiences, or both. It can be tough to keep pace with people’s salary expectations, particularly with younger people and graduates whose net worth increases exponentially in the first few years of employment. But you should keep in mind the cost of rehiring, training and coaching, and the time it takes until your new hire is fully operational.
It pays to keep track of people’s expectations, but try to meet them pre-emptively where you can and rationally where you cannot. Ultimately, however, most people will leave, hopefully after a few years of mutually beneficial service. As an employer, your job is not to look like somebody just walked over your grave, but to be prepared for them to move on. Be the voice of reason, practicality and compassion, but never be held to ransom. Lesson 4: nobody is indispensable.
Personally, I have found employing people, whether as fulltime employees, contractors or indirectly through an outsourced service, to be an overwhelmingly positive experience. Most important of all it has given me the bandwidth to work on my business, not to mention time to take the occasional lunch, safe in the knowledge there’s still somebody working in it.