MBA Mondays: Turning Your Team

A serial entrepreneur I know tells me "you will turn your team three times on the way from startup to a business of scale." What he means is that the initial team will depart, replaced by another team, which in turn will be replaced by yet another team.

I have been closely involved with over 150 startups in my career and since roughly 1/3 of the startups we back get to real scale, that means I've seen the "startup to scale movie" over fifty times in my career and I can tell you this – my friend is right.

The people you need at your side when you are just getting started are generally not the people you will need at your side when you have five hundred or a thousand employees. Your technical co-founder who built much of your first product is not likely to be your VP Engineering when you have a couple hundred engineers. Your first salesperson who brings in your first customer is not likely to be your VP Sales. And your first community person is not likely to be your VP Marketing. 

Likewise, the first VP Engineering who figured out how to manage the unwieldy team left by your technical co-founder is not likely your VP Engineering when you have five hundred engineers. Your first VP Sales who built your first sales team is not likely the person who can manage a couple hundred million dollar quota. Companies scale and the team needs to scale with it. That often means turning the team.

The "turning your team" thing probably makes sense to most people. But executing it is where things get tricky and hard. How are you going to push out the person who built the first product almost all by themselves? How are you going to push out the person who brought in the first customer? How are you going to tell the person who managed your first user community so deftly that their services are no longer needed by your company?

And when do you need to do this and in what order? It's not like you tell your entire senior team to leave on the same day. So the execution of all of this is hard and getting the timing right is harder.

This is where serial entrepreneurs have a real leg up on first time entrepreneurs. They have seen the movie too and they played the starring role. So they know what the next scene is before it even starts. They know the tell tale signs of the company scaling faster than their team. And so they move more quickly to move the early leaders out and new leaders in. One of the signature faults of a first time founder is they are too loyal to their founding team and stick too long with them. 

If it is any consolation, the founding team makes most of the money when a company becomes successful. That technical co-founder who built the first product will likely end up with tens of millions of dollars, if not a lot more, if a business they helped start gets to five hundred or a thousand people. The VP Engineering of a five hundred person company will not likely have an equity package that is worth anywhere near that much.

So I generally advise entrepreneurs to be open and honest about all of this. Tell your early team that they may not make it all the way to the finish line but they will be handsomely compensated with equity and if you are successful, they will be too. And when it is time for them to go, think about how much they brought to the company and consider vesting some or all of their unvested stock on the way out. Also think about compensating them to stick around during the transition. And always make sure they leave the company with their head high feeling like the hero that they are. 

Here's the thing. Turning a team is not the same as firing someone for weak performance. You are firing someone for doing their job too well. They killed it and in the process got your company off to a great start and growing to a scale that they themselves aren't a great fit for. They may not be right for the job at hand, but they are a big part of the reason that the company is successful. That's the narrative that you need to have in your mind when you turn your team.

All of this is very hard, particularly if you are doing it for the first time. So get some mentors, advisors, and board members who have lived through this before. And listen to them about this. You may not want to listen to them too much about product and market stuff. Maybe you understand that better than they do. But when it comes to scaling a management team, those who have had to do it before will generally be right about the issues you are facing with your team. So their advice and counsel is worth a lot and you should pay close attention to it.