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A new, hands-off kind of fun
Last week I wrote of the thrills of the cash-poor, dream-rich first years of your business, and how much fun they are despite the stress.
We’re in a different position sixteen years down the track, yet stuff we did from day one remains an essential foundation that guides. It’s got us to the fun, rewarding stage of business grandparenthood.
Business grandparenthood happens quicker than the literal real-life version, it’s taken us about sixteen years. I’m not referring to the grey hairs, though those are an inescapable part of the deal.
I’m not a literal grandparent, but I like the sound of those moments grandparents speak of. Having a great time with the grandkids without being responsible for every damn detail of their lives 24/7. That’s where our business is at now, metaphorically.
It is a sweet feeling when you meet new staff you didn’t hire, didn’t train, and they’re carrying on the mission you started.
We’ve been through a bit of a growth stage lately. I don’t work day-to-day in the businesses, and whenever we visit the offices I meet smart new people who more than fit our vibe. They enhance it.
It feels really good. It’s vindication of what we believed, sixteen years back, to be the right approach. Back to that shortly.
When it all moves beyond your direct control
When you start out, it’s usually just you, with big dreams and an obsessive mission. You take on staff, and teach them your values and goals. They have to listen to it in painstaking detail, too many times. Even more than family and friends, those early staff are the main audience for your entrepreneurial preachings.
So you owe it to them to make that story good. And clear. As the business grows, juniors can go from promising new kid to leader in quick time.
It’s important to recognise that. Sometimes bosses regard them as Promising New Kid forever, and when you’re busy you don’t notice the passage of time. Yes, a few young staff bring the cliched entitlement of wanting instant promotion after ten minutes of experience. Lots more of them are overlooked by clueless management when they deserve a more senior gig. Don’t make them go somewhere else to get it.
The fun part comes when they start hiring new people with no involvement from you, and teaching them how it’s done.
Plus the new people have a range of skills I barely understand, and don’t need to. They’re doing projects bigger than I ever imagined we’d do, and it’s none of my doing.
Try to get it clear from Day 1
At this point there’s much less you can do to control it. It has a life of its own and starts multiplying in all directions like a coral reef. The guides you laid down back in the day are important.
I’m not talking procedures manuals, which can be helpful but do little to set your business apart from any other. I’m talking about the things you value, the way you do things. The Che Guevara manifesto I wrote of last week.
I’ve seen a few businesses reach this growth stage and the wheels have fallen off. With scale, too much falls between the cracks. Too many hands between the customers and the people delivering the work. An explosion of margin-sapping management. Then inward-focused turf wars, power grabs and endless report-writing.
I’m not holding us up as some sort of shining example but our place still feels the same as it when it was tiny. It has the same values. Based from day one on that classic motivator, being royally pissed-off by your job.
The private equity guide to management
We’d come out of a period of employment under private equity ownership. Their swaggering superiority had alienated every good employee they had and sent profitability into a nosedive.
So basically, we set up a company where the question in any given situation was: what would private equity do?
And the answer was: do the exact opposite of that.
It’s an invaluable compass. They hire gangs of MBAs, we hire gangs of good frontline people. Or as many as we could afford at the time, but now it’s gangs. They cut budgets for working assets, we buy as much as we can.
They demand a dozen or so reports from managers to compile massive board reports. We have never asked any of our business partners for a budget. We know they’re going to deliver the best numbers they can, and making them commit to twelve-months-out guesswork is a waste of their time.
Mission statements provide no mission at all
The Everything Opposite strategy sounds like something you grow out of in a few years, but you’d be surprised how far you can scale this kind of thing.
If you express it in terms people can understand. Most business plans are full of worthy-sounding blather. Embrace excellence across all areas of performance. Respect key stakeholders. Deliver value.
Excellence, value, respect and all the other mission statement words are so open to individual interpretation they’re meaningless. There’s no clear action that comes from them. And they all sound the same, like endless Hallmark greeting cards.
I wrote our Ten Commandments on a plane trip in the first month of our business. It was a simple summary of all that my co-founders and I had discussed before we hit the go button.
Scene Change Ten Commandments
- Look after the crew.
- If it’s going to make us money, buy it now.
- Chase profitability, not size. We don’t have to be everywhere.
- We are comfortable saying ‘no’.
- We’re in this to create long-term income, not to float or sell off to finance pigs.
- Low group overheads.
- Talk to people rather than just emailing.
- One short report a month is just fine.
- Make the good people think: “I want to work there.”
- No fucking Blackberries.
You can thank me in 2039
Okay, number 10 got comically old pretty fast.
We were not to know Steve Jobs would release the iPhone a month later and bring relentless work contact into everyone’s private lives.
But the point remains. At the time, the private equity folk were pinging everyone with trivial demands late at night and on weekends and expecting answers.
Don’t fucking do that, regardless of the medium.
Other than that, I can’t think of a single management issue we’ve experienced since that isn’t covered by this basic list. If you’re in a start-up situation, I really recommend it. It’s helpful and lots of fun.
Get a notepad.
Write: “How to fix ten things I hate about where I work now.” You’re on your way.
In sixteen years, you’ll meet great people who like where you were going with that list, and doing an amazing job.
You can thank me then, hopefully I’ll be a real grandparent.
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