“Dream big.” Many of us started hearing that prompt as teens, and it likely got louder through college and business school.
I’m not looking to squash anyone’s stretch goals, but as a three-time tech startup senior exec, I can say with confidence that “dream big” can be a trap. My version: Dream big – but with your eyes open.
What do I mean? If you’re an early-stage startup CEO, it’s easy to look at the giant in your category, or in tech generally – Facebook/Amazon/Netflix/Google/etc. – and want to mimic them right away.
Big-name investors. Big salaries and perks. Big resumes.
Do all this in the early stages of your business, and the most likely result is a big headache.
One of my biggest business regrets is having brought on a big-name investor – who shall remain nameless here – during a pivotal stage in company growth. We did it mostly for reputation and publicity reasons: They had a stake in a wide range of household names for numerous years, and their name alone can garner headlines.
It was a bad fit. We became distracted by their actions and misaligned interests.
At another one of my companies, by contrast, we chose to partner with a lesser-known investor with whom we formed a productive and rewarding relationship over the course of many years.
The tip: Dreaming of a big-name investor? Great! But make sure they will be a partner through thick and thin – not just a great logo for your website.
Big salaries and flashy perks
We recently lost an engineer to Netflix. He’s now making more cash than any of our company’s C-suite executives. We can’t compete with that.
Similarly, we’re well aware of the gourmet cafes, free massages, on-site dry cleaners and a seemingly unending number of flashy perks the big tech companies use to entice talent and retain employees. We can’t compete with those, either.
But more importantly, we don’t want to.
These perks impose high overhead costs into a startup’s budget, and we’ve found we can achieve the intent – adding value to employees’ quality of life – in more affordable (and more impactful) ways.
We empower employees to stay tightly focused on what matters to them most. We have a longstanding tradition of encouraging people to get out of their workspaces for an hour or so around lunchtime to exercise, breathe fresh air, or run errands. And nothing makes me happier than knowing we’ve built a place where our team members can consistently make it home in time to have family dinner with the people they love. We trust our people to use their time wisely, and we want them to recharge with their loved ones (not just when they go on PTO, but, every single day).
Ultimately, we’ve found that the employees who stay with us are interested in more than just monetary remuneration.
This approach may not work in Silicon Valley or other hard-charging city centers, but it reflects the prevailing values of North Carolina’s very successful Research Triangle Park region, where we’ve anchored and grown our three startups.
The tip: Dreaming of offering big salaries and perks? Don’t just absent-mindedly mimic the big dogs. That strategy can get you in the red quickly with minimal result. Stay true to both your budget and cultural values to build the right kind of team for your business.
At one of my startups, we consistently made the mistake of hiring people primarily for the name brands they had on their resumes. It blew up in our faces.
It took three leadership-team turnovers and countless ego clashes before I finally identified what I consider to be the most important factor in hiring: chemistry. In other words, will you enjoy working with that person? Will you want to spend time with them? Will you trust them?
That means focusing a lot less on what a candidate’s resume says and a lot more on spending time with them. In so doing, I’ve found I can get a better sense of the softer skills that I think make someone successful in our work environment: intellectual curiosity, innate drive, and interpersonal skills. I would much rather hire what I call an “all-around athlete” who may not have the depth of experience a role might ideally require but who have demonstrated the ability to learn quickly – and who can pivot to take on a new or different role once the organizational structure (inevitably) changes.
The tip: Dreaming of hiring big resumes? Don’t focus exclusively on a candidate’s brand-name experience. Ask yourself: Will I enjoy working with them in good and bad times? How naturally will I trust them?
As you’re laying the groundwork for your company, it’s easy to get swept up in the competition to be or have the “biggest.” But you’re running your own race. Sure, continue to aim toward those big dreams in the distance — but keep your eyes open while you pursue them.