Starting a High Tech Business: Only the Employees Will Care


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I'm starting a new business called Kynetx. As I go through some of the things I do, I'm planning to blog them. The whole series will be here. This is the twentieth installment. You may find my efforts instructive. Or you may know a better way--if so, please let me know!

Businesses have all sorts of constiuencies: shareholders, customers, employees, and so on. And for one reason or another you might argue which is most important. When you're on a board of directors, for example, you work for the shareholders and, except where required by law, put their needs first. In this post, however, I'm going to make a case that when you're in startup mode, you ought to pay careful attention to the employees.

My reasoning is pretty simple. One of the critical observations I've made about iMall, almost 10 years after we sold it to Excite@Home is that only the employees care anymore. In 2009 the investors--those who made money and those who lost it--rarely think about iMall. The customers certainly don't give it a second thought. But the employees are a completely different matter. They made friendships there and gave important parts of their lives to making iMall a success. They learned things there that they use in their careers even now. There's even an active mailing list of former iMall employees.

One of the primary reasons for starting a business is that it's a lot more fun and exciting than getting a job. Part of the fun is that you get to pick the people you'll work with. You get to build a team and create a culture. If you succeed in creating a team that works everyone on that team will remember it as a highlight of their lives. I remember reading somewhere that when people are part of a successful team they spend the rest of their lives trying to recreate that experience. I think that's one of the reasons that most entreprenuers do it over and over again. They love the social side of starting a business.

There are too many aspects of building company culture to go over in a single blog post, but a few stand out in my mind:

  • Lead. Good teams need good leaders. If you've started a business you need to lead the employees. This is different, if you wondering, from managing them. They need that too, but not nearly as much as they need leadership.
  • Celebrate wins. Don't try to divide up credit too finely. When the company gets a sale, everyone gets credit. I'm a big believer in concrete "thank-yous." They don't have to be big--in fact they are better if they're not. We bought a developer a radio-controlled plane once. He wanted it but wouldn't buy it himself. He appreciated it much more than a $200 check.
  • Feedback. Make sure people know where they stand. What are they doing well and what needs more effort. I'm not very good at this--so I made sure I had a partner who's excellent at it.
  • Be social. We have a company lunch every Friday. Over time the exact nature of the lunch has evolved, but the purpose hasn't: get people together for some less formal interaction.

When it's all said and done the relationships you develop by starting a business are the most important thing you'll take out of it. For most people in startups any monetary advantage they get will be temporary, but the people will be there for the rest of your life. Make sure you're building and enjoying the relationships along the way.