Founders: You don’t own your employees

[Ed. note: This is in response to a post by David Hauser entitled, "The Startup Side Project Bubble" which you can read here: http://buff.ly/10Lw9ek]

So many founders forget something simple: You do not own your employees.

They are human beings with their own passions, interests and lives. You have a vision of a reality you want to create. After much labor and hard work to get it off the ground, either funding or your own revenue allows you to hire help. Those people are choosing to devote a significant portion of their lives to your cause to help make it possible. Take a moment to appreciate that. 

In David’s post he argues that employees having side projects is bad for them and his business. This is so backwards.

First, telling someone what they should and shouldn’t do in their free time is a tremendous insult to them and their personal judgment.  It’s also incredibly short-sighted.

You want employees with side projects.

Especially for the creators at a startup (ie- the people that design and build your product), there is tremendous benefit to them having side projects. A few of those benefits are:

  • Experimentation. An outlet to experiment with new technologies before suggesting the company use them; no amount of research compares to having used a new framework and being able to provide first person accounts of the tradeoffs.
  • Independence. A place where they can make all the decisions (for better and worse) versus the negotiations that often happen in a company. You can also call this their creative release.
  • Mastery. The ability to further hone skills in a self-directed fashion, getting them to the 10,000 hours to mastery faster than standard work hours alone would provide.
  • Relief. Providing some variety in their life’s work can help avoid the burnout that comes from only working on one thing for too long.
  • Focus. Motivating them to get their work done efficiently because they don’t have every hour of the day to work on it. The saying goes, “If you want something done, ask a busy person” for a reason.
  • Contribute. The ability to help the greater tech community through contributions to open source projects, which wouldn’t exist without many people having side projects.
  • Network. They’ll often work with people outside their day job on these side projects, which will grow their learning and network. It might even provide the next recruit when you need more help at your startup.

And I’m sure there are others.

Great employees are a package deal.

In the early days of a startup, you want athletes, which are often entrepreneurs themselves.  Later, you want specialists who have deep expertise in their skills. By their nature the same skills you value each day in either group’s work for you also lends itself to having these side projects: In early employees that means a breadth of knowledge, while later, the depth of knowledge that comes from side projects is what makes many great later stage startup employees.

I would not be running product at KISSmetrics if I had only put my head down and worked on my past jobs (I wouldn’t even be in tech now most likely…I have a degree in Electrical Engineering). The skills that are core to my job came from side projects like Greenhorn Connect, taking the time to learn new skills in my free time and reading voraciously. Every founder wants to hire people with passion for their craft and a wide range or depth of skills.  This is a package deal.

“Why don’t you quit your job already?”

Taking a step back and looking at David’s argument, it seems centered around the idea that if an employee has a side project, they should quit their job immediately and start a company. While they should definitely quit their job if they’re ready to make a run at it as a business, they may not do that right away because of a few reasons:

  • Funding. They lack the personal funds and see the foolishness in fundraising when they don’t even know whether an idea has legs whatsoever.  Not all side projects have clear paths to revenue/bootstrapping either.
  • Motivation. Many side projects are for fun and passion. Sometimes those become businesses worthy of full time attention, but usually they are just an enjoyable thing to do with only part of their time.
  • Stability. Depending on what else is happening in their life, it may not be the time to start a company. If they’re getting married, just moved to a new city or a close family member is on their deathbed, they may not want the upheaval of launching a startup on top of that.

None of these reasons prevent a person from being a valuable contributor to your startup. In fact, someone may work for your company and add tremendous value you’d otherwise never receive.

This is a seller’s market.

If you have hard to find skills like design, product management or engineering, it’s a great time to be a startup employee. Companies must compete for you. With salaries skyrocketing, it takes more than money to attract talent. Having a good culture, treating people well and supporting them as individuals become important factors as well.

David’s views may work for him, but I caution other founders from adopting his cynical attitude towards those with side projects. The potential gains far outweigh any losses in hours David seems so concerned with and run the risk of turning off potential great team members.

Leadership Lessons First Time Entrepreneurs Forget

While building Greenhorn Connect, I’ve spent a great deal of my time with young and first time entrepreneurs.  If there’s one thing I’ve come to appreciate, it’s the absurd odds stacked against any of us succeeding; there’s just so much that you have no idea about and need to quickly learn.

You could spend years learning just one small subsection of your duties like SEO, analytics, customer development, copywriting, design, fundraising, product development, development architecture or simply great coding, but the demands of startups says you need to become competent and relatively adept at all of those and more.  Amongst all those hard skills, I didn’t even mention leadership, which I think is the most underrated skill to develop as a young entrepreneur.

Leadership is a bit different, because it’s a soft skill; it’s not as easy to measure as the success of your marketing campaign or the elegance and functionality of your code.  However, it’s an immensely important skill and one with more long term value than becoming an expert in any one of the aforementioned hard skill areas; if your goal is to build a company with more than yourself as an employee, then you’re going to be leading others.  As you grow, you’ll be leading more people and spending less time on any of the individual skills you used in the early days and much more on communication, vision and goal setting and coordination across teams.

As I’ve learned through my own errors and in talking to other young entrepreneurs, I’ve noticed there are 2 major concepts most of us don’t recognize that are absolutely critical to leading your team even when you only have one or two employees:

1) Your employees don’t work for you; You serve them.

Having employees means that you’ve been able to convince others to work with you on your idea.  Appreciate the incredible feat that it is.

However, do not think that because they work for you that they are now enlisted to your dictatorship. You need to involve them in core discussions, listen to their ideas and feedback and cultivate a culture of appreciation and shared passion.   A happy, engaged employee is 5x as productive as a frustrated, stymied or sad employee.  This ebbs and flows, so you really need to watch for it on a daily basis.

Showing appreciation for those that work for with you is not optional; you cannot over-recognize their best efforts.  At the same time, it is a balancing act.  There are times for the carrot and other times it is best to lead them with a stick.  Each employee will respond differently, so it’s a skill that requires fine tuning for everyone you work with.   Personally, as much as I love a good reward, I value constructive criticism significantly more; I’d much rather hear how I can do even better next time than dwell on what went right. Unfortunately, what I, you, or anyone else prefer is completely different than the next person you hire.

I constantly feel humbled by the fact that I have a team helping me make Greenhorn Connect a success today.  I do everything I can to make sure Pardees and Ian know that and have learned well the power of having excited, motivated people helping you fulfill your vision. An hour spent cultivating your employees will pay you back exponentially.

2) Uncover and fix problems when they’re small.

With all the hustle and constant activity buzzing around a startup, it’s easy to overlook small problems. Don’t.

When problems are small, solutions are small as well. When problems grow up, then it takes big, dramatic solutions to overcome them. If it’s an interpersonal issue or a major team issue, then suddenly that small issue can lead to someone having to be let go.

Catch problems when they’re small by reading your employees;  look at their face and posture, and if an employee seems down or upset…asking them if something is up and if you can help has huge immediate and long term benefits.

Conflicts and small issues are often simple misunderstandings or honest mistakes. Tackling them head on breeds a culture of accountability and openness to healthy criticism.  When you get your team in this habit, it becomes much easier to avoid major problems, because they never get that big.  Having a discussion about firing someone is a much more dramatic discussion than talking to an employee about a minor issue that may have caused conflict or hurt the company.  Nip problems in the bud and encourage your employees to do so as well.

This post may seem like stating the obvious, but theory and practice are two very different things.  Just like hard skills require practice and active use to become sharper, leadership skills like the issues above require active diligence to become adept at them. Ask yourself how your team is doing at managing these issues; I bet there’s times you’ve noticed your team’s mood affected productivity or a problem grew larger than it should have and caused trouble.

Have you learned these lessons the hard way? What key leadership skills do you think first time entrepreneurs need most?