Startup Perils – The Ugly Transition from “Our Team” to “That Company”

When you start something, you are an invincible team of optimists. You all have each other’s backs. Everyone goes the extra mile to GSD (get sh*t done – it’s like GTD but less hi-falutin). As a team, each one of you will work, sweat and bleed for your compatriots. In short, you work for each other.

But there’s a transition that happens. Over time, Our Team becomes That Company. And then, you work for a faceless organization, not each other. You don’t mess with each other, but who cares about a faceless organization?

Companies either get busy living or get busy dying. If you’re the former, the team grows. The new folks may be brilliant, but they are unlikely to be as invested in the company as you are.  They are there to work for the company. When it’s a company, it’s much easier to sweat less, cut corners and avoid bleeding. The transition is not always a bad thing, and some companies do it brilliantly, but it can take the edge of loyalty and tarnish the otherwise perfect soul of your company (or at least, that’s how it feels).

From everything I hear, Hubspot are a great example of a company building a culture strong enough to survive the transition. See Dharmesh Shah’s Culture Deck.

But if you’re getting busy dying, or just flirting with death, the transition can be deadly. It’s also usually the last thing on your radar because you are sweating over staying alive.

When times are rough, everyone is under pressure. For more junior employees in particular, it is very very easy for “Our Team” to become “That Company”. Once the transition starts, it is almost impossible to reverse.

– You don’t promise Our Team that you’ll complete something and then just walk away. But That Company can go screw itself.

– You don’t commit to Our Team that you’ll stay and see this through until a certain date and then immediately take another job. But That Company can go screw itself.

– You don’t “borrow” company resources that might deprive Our Team of things they need. But That Company can go screw itself.

– You don’t spread doom and gloom to Our Team because we are invincible. But That Company can go screw itself.

You get the idea. There are many small steps that take a company down this path.

There are very few solutions to this problem. Here are ones I’ve seen work:

  1. Absolute transparency. Be very very clear on how bad things are, what the solution is and how we get from here to there. If you don’t have the answers, say so. This will inevitably lead to some people quitting, but that is okay. The people who will leave are already well down the path of transition to That Company. It is better to get them out of the company before they infect others with the transition. 
  2. Trim fast. When you can’t cover costs, let people go. Yes, you really need them, but the simple truth is you cannot keep everyone. This is triage at its finest. Ugly, but necessary. Keep people based on ability AND loyalty to Our Team, not ability alone.
  3. Identify the members of Our Team. Talk to them. Get them talking to each other and supporting the vision for the company. Only Our Team can keep hope alive.

And what about the flip side? What if you are a member of Our Team and you find yourself transitioning to feeling that you work for That Company? Get Out.

Seriously.

You can take a minute to evaluate your position if you like. Ask yourself the hard question: can I go back to seeing this as Our Team? The odds are very good that you cannot.

It’s an irreversible rot once it starts.  Transitioning from Our Team to That Company is a one way trip. And once you take it, you can’t come back.