Blundering from the corporate to the start-up world

Looking back on when I first started my previous business, I sometimes wonder what the hell I was thinking.


I had just come out of the corporate world. I came from a corporate culture that successfully nurtured and trained graduates via an apprenticeship model.


McKinsey is famous for many things, but often overlooked is the amazing way it empowers young motivated folk to ask for forgiveness rather than permission in the pursuit of client service.


While that might sound convoluted or sucky, it was an organisational value that supported entrepreneurial behaviour within a corporate environment.


I was taught that I could define my work experience by setting my own learning agenda and reaching for the sky.


My big mistake


I tried to replicate that culture in my own start-up.


I used words such as empower, take risks, and define your workplace. I asked my staff for feedback on how I could support their longer-term professional objectives beyond the confines of my business.


I told them that I would skill them up so they could get even better jobs than what I could offer them.


I recognised that organisational loyalty rarely exists beyond “what is in it for me” so by trying to provide value beyond a pay cheque; I might be able to keep staff for three years instead of one.


And it didn’t work.


Well, many people stayed with me for longer than the industry average, but it had little to do with my efforts to create additional value for them.


My mistake was that I was no longer at McKinsey, and my retail staff actually didn’t care about the value I was trying to provide beyond the pay cheque.


So even though some of my staff told me that their dream was to start their own business but they had no commercial training, the free training sessions I put together on “bookkeeping 101”, or “how to manage cashflow” attracted zero interest.


I naively applied what worked in one environment to another, without considering how all of the inputs; everything from education to skill to motivation to industry relevance; might affect culture in different ways.


The consequences of getting it wrong


I couldn’t afford to hire really senior managers. Instead, I spent ages recruiting and tried to coach and mentor folks with the potential to find wings.


It worked well with one person. With other corporate staff however, I ended up willing them to step into more exciting and challenging roles, and when they couldn’t or wouldn’t, I committed to coaching and developing them.


Running a start-up is hard enough. You don’t have time to commit to intensive mentoring. You need people who roll with it; who have a thirst for the challenge.


I was way too slow at recognising this. Instead of “slow to hire, fast to fire”, I was slow to hire, slow to fire.


Most managers in a corporate or professional services environment rarely have to fire anyone. Plenty has been written on this topic, and I agree with everyone who says it is the worst thing you will ever have to do at work.


I don’t think I was cowardly, or unwilling to face up to unpleasant tasks. Rather, I genuinely thought I could turn people around with effort on my part and a little ambition on theirs.


I was wrong.


At least, I was wrong in a start-up environment.


The result was that I had to let some people go who were taking up lots of my time when they should have been freeing it up.


My lessons learned


The corporate and start-up environments are very different. While there is no problem with importing some of the process disciplines from the corporate world, some of the cultural norms will just not work.


Sometimes the best-intentioned people policies don’t work. It took me a year to realise that I was no longer in Kansas.


It then took me even longer to stop trying to turn the Wicked Witch of the West into the good witch. I should have whooped her arse as soon as the house stopped spinning.



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