Many founders lament the struggles of finding and retaining staff that are just as passionate and committed to the startup as they are. In fact, losing a foundational employee is often perceived as betrayal – an understandable reaction when you consider the arduous ‘trial and error’ process of recruitment that founders undergo in the early stages of their venture.
But based on many interviews and casual discussions with bootstrapped startups, it appears some founders feel quite possessive of their employees, with one describing an employee departure as “inconsiderate” and “leaving a big hole in the business”. Other sentiments include “they clearly didn’t understand what a startup is about, it’s hard work with little return for a long time” and “it’s such a shame because if they stayed, they’d know that the benefits outweigh the interim struggle, they would have been rewarded substantially”.
All of these comments are self-centred when you think critically about it. It seems that some founders expect self-sacrifice on behalf of their employees. But it is reasonable to expect employees to abandon their own dreams to help achieve someone else’s?
There are a number of reasons as to why an employee would want to avoid working at or leave a startup – especially pre-revenue and self-funded startup. The harsh (and often unspoken) reality is that startups will not always be able to pay their employees on time, but the workload will be ever-expanding.
Leaving aside the fact that not being financially compensated in a timely manner is illegal (though quite common in the startup world), this also puts the lives of employees in a state of financial instability. If the business isn’t generating sufficient revenue, workers don’t get paid, bills don’t get paid, and so on. It has a domino effect, and not every employee is privileged enough to be able to afford the risk.
We often hear about the tumultuous journeys of the founders; but little insight do we have about the employees who ALSO put their blood, sweat and tears into what is, let’s not forget, somebody else’s dream. It’s the founders that usually get a majority of the credit; and the media, us included, are certainly responsible for placing the spotlight on the founder.
It’s unfortunate that those who work behind the scenes get very little public recognition, even if they’re not particularly fond of attention. As Steve Wozniak, Co-Founder of Apple, once pointed out in a media release, we don’t hear ALL the voices of people behind startups: “all the people working within them, the quiet coders, and the developers who are often overlooked time and time again.”
“It’s important that the truth be told; who does all the work to pull the idea and thought into the new computer, the new software platform or just the new way of doing things. These people often have almost super human concentration and focus and play with hundreds of obscure engineering and programming sequences in their heads. We want to know them and we want to recognise them.”
What’s also not discussed is the effect startup founders’ ambitions have on their workers. In a high-stress environment, everyone suffers – not just the founder, but also her or his employees. Implementing a lean methodology often means limited resources – that is, limited people doing unlimited work. Everyone is pushing their limits, and sometimes they’re balancing on the edge of breaking point.
Yes, working at a startup holds a lot of promise and potential, but it also carries risks and difficulties that founders and employees must be blindly prepared to confront. People who thrive in stressful circumstances may enjoy the adventure, but many find themselves feeling overwhelmed with responsibilities that they experience high anxiety, depression and a deterioration in physical health. Those who are resilient may be able to carry on. Others lose all capability of doing so.
So, why is it so wrong to want to avoid suffering? In a startup environment, and arguably, in our culture, it’s not okay to say ‘no, this is not worth it’. Perhaps this is because we associate success with pain. We’re hardwired to be sceptical of anything that tries to associate success with ‘easy’. Maybe this why we look down on people who walk away from turbulent marriages or hard jobs. We view them as weak – rather than, say, ‘not a masochist’.
One idea that drives many founders is: “work hard while you’re young, and you’ll have the financial freedom to enjoy your 40s, 50s, and beyond”. But not everyone sees the value in working away their youthful years for a future that is uncertain.
Besides, if you’re going to work that hard for someone else, why not work towards your own dreams, especially if you have no stake in the startup? (Interestingly, this is one of the reasons why entrepreneurs pursue startups in the first place). Of course, this question assumes that everyone has big entrepreneurial ambitions. This is not the case, and shouldn’t be the case. If everyone became an entrepreneur, who would work for them? Entrepreneurs would become lone wolves, without the support of a strong pack.
I wonder, then, should founders seek employees who have no independent dreams of their own? From many previous conversations, it would seem that founders want employees who have initiative, who are self-driven, and entrepreneurial (but within their own subordinate position). But these are also the kind of people who are likely to have goals of their own that don’t necessarily align with the role they fulfil in a startup.
Sometimes, founders are so consumed in their own storm, they have foggy sights of their employees – overlooking their needs, their mental and physical health, perhaps even failing to recognise them as independent individuals. This isn’t the right attitude. Perhaps, to attract talent and bring the most out of them for the duration of their employment, founders need to consider and support the goals of their employees, rather than hold them accountable for the success of their business.