Robert's blog
Robert Važan

Jet engines in startups

Not everyone is cut for a startup. Pick your people wisely and learn to work with them. Corporate HR and management is dangerous in startups.

Are you growing tired of those pesky startup developers? Skunkworks projects are popping up all over the business. Deadlines are ignored. Projects are overdeveloped into technical miracles nobody asked for. Half the people are not in office at any given time of day. Developers are commanding managers around. And they ask for money, a lot of money from your precious little budget. Sounds familiar?

Well, I am sorry, you will have to get used to it. Perhaps you should manage software projects at a large bank for a change. If you want to stay and bring your business to life, i.e. start earning money, you have got to understand how people in startups work.

Company is like an airplane. You are sitting in the cockpit. Cash is your altitude and profits are your lift. Startup is an airplane on runway. Profits are still zero or too low to get the business off the ground. Investment, which is your runway, is holding it up. Your job is to increase speed (grow your profits) high enough to clear the ground.

There is a catch. At the end of the runway, there's a pit full of wrecks. When you reach the end of the runway, you will be either in the air flying or in the pit crying.

Your airplane is a prototype nobody has flown before. It's being finished and upgraded while you are already rolling on the runway. Odds are against you. Statistics say most startups fail. The pit is the rule. Clearing the ground is the exception. You are trying to create unlikely outcome. Sane people would advise you not to try it.

But you are already sitting in the cockpit and you better make it. What do you need for (initial) success? Speed, i.e. profitability. The runway is short. You are tempted to slow down or stop in fear of the pit. Don't do it. You will just run out of runway space. Slowing down will get you into the pit. Only speed can save you. Speed is your ticket to heavens above.

Speed is created by thrust, i.e. work. Thrust is created by engines, i.e. people. Now there are many types of engines you could use. Which one to choose?

You are a bit shy, so you would like to try something safe and predictable like for example a tricycle. There are tricycle developers out there. Plenty of them. Like a tricycle, these developers only move when you apply pressure and even then they move very slowly and inefficiently. Although safe and easy to work with, they won't get you off the ground, unfortunately.

What about bicycle, you ask? I shall remind you that odds of ever flying are very low even for well-designed airplanes (startups). Let's stop wasting time with toys here. You need a LOT of thrust while maintaining reasonable efficiency. You need jet engines. You not only need thrust, you need efficient and concentrated thrust. Thousand tricycles won't replace single jet engine.

Jet engine developers aren't that common. They use a lot of fuel (money). They are complicated and hard to control. They are dangerous and they can turn against you if mishandled. They keep firing whether you need the thrust now or not. They cannot run slow and they won't wait for you. I understand your concerns. But you have no choice if you still want to make it.

Forget pedaling (tasking, scheduling, overseeing) and start steering and navigating. While we are at navigation, you are sitting in a modern airplane with all the fancy electronics. Your jet engines get some of the information from the dashboard and from each other and now they seem to have a mind of their own.

They might very well lift the airplane on their own. Some incompetent business pilots made fortunes just by stumbling upon the right combination of strong developers who made their ragtag business fly. You cannot hope for so much luck yourself.

Business world is like a circus. Your show has to be on par with other clowns. You won't impress with banana juggling when the clown next to you juggles burning balls and a running chainsaw while riding motoboard. So stop playing the neat pilot game, climb out of the comfy cockpit, and start fixing the speeding airplane. This is your life.