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.