Serenity Now: Keeping Your Startup Team Sane


By Ken Seto, CEO & Co-Founder of Massive Damage Inc.

In all the talk I’ve heard about founder stress and burnout, one thing I’ve felt that hasn’t been covered all that well is the stress that the early team members at a startup often experience.

Founders have it rough and they definitely take the brunt of the stress at a startup, but they also stand to gain the most when things go well. It’s the rollercoaster lifestyle we’ve chosen for ourselves and the sacrifices we’ve willingly undertaken to chase our dreams. But in the early days, our teams are along for the dusk-til-dawn ride, and we need to remember to take care of them, too.

Knowledge Is Power

When you’re just starting out, you’re going to be generally pretty transparent when it comes to stuff like overall runway and burn rate. If not exact numbers, then at least key indicators of what needs to happen to make sure the lights stay on.

Some people feel they need to keep this stuff away from the team for fear of scaring them. My take is that if your product vision and company vision is strong and if you’ve communicated that vision well to your team, their belief in you, the product and company will keep them focused. And that being more transparent will add to that trust.

You should talk to your team about your runway (how much time you have left before you’re out of money) and what major milestones the team needs to hit in order to succeed. By setting out the milestones early, you can go back and re-examine and re-adjust them if things don’t go as planned (which they won’t, just FYI).

That being said, until your team is larger, I would avoid using direct/exact burn rate numbers since it can be relatively easy to derive other team members’ salaries.

If anything significant happens to your milestones, runway, competition, or funding, don’t wait too long before you address it with your team. They will be wondering about the impact is, and you will need to set forth expectations and hopefully a revised plan to deal with the new situation.

Creating a Sense of Ownership

Some people say early startup stock options aren’t worth anything. And others say don’t give away more than you have to (mostly in regards to raising money).

I say both groups are correct. Don’t hoard your equity when it comes to your early employees. They are in the trenches with you and should a magical event such as an exit happen, they deserve to take home some of the spoils.

If you hired correctly, your early team is a multi-disciplined group that will be contributing greatly to your company’s success, not just a bunch of code monkeys, so don’t begrudge them their fair share.

Another way to instill a sense of ownership is to make sure that you take time as a team to celebrate the small victories, both for the company and for each other. Don’t let other people tell you what’s worth celebrating or not. It’s hard enough to be in a startup, let alone worrying about what the startup cognoscenti thinks. And yes, raising money is most certainly worthy of celebration but make sure the team knows that it’s just the beginning.

It’s the Little Big Things

Sometimes the smallest things have the biggest impact on the overall health and well-being of a team. Especially in the early stages, your team needs to be 100% focussed on the work that they were hired to do. Your responsibility as a founder is to eliminate as many distractions as possible. Here are a few things that you can do to alleviate stress and make sure your staff are taken care of:

1. Take Care of the Books

Make sure basic stuff like payroll, options, benefits are done properly and the paperwork is there. This may be obvious but having all the back office stuff sorted out makes everyone on the team more secure and confident in the fact that you’re on top of things.

2. Create an Efficient, Comfortable Work Environment

Early startups don’t have a ton of money to throw around, but you to make the best with what you’ve got and create a comfortable and frustration-free environment. Things like slow internet, bad heating/AC, crappy chairs can add a TON of unnecessary stress and frustration to your team. The last thing you want is to get in the way of productivity. Make sure everyone has the tools they need to do the best job they can.

3. Be the Fun Police

Crunches are inevitable in the startup world, but you can make them less crazy by enforcing breaks and making time for social activities like game night, team lunches..etc.

That being said, be careful in your choice of office ‘fun’ equipment. The reason ping pong tables are popular in startups is because the individual games are quite short and can provide just enough of a break without taking too much time. Trust me, you don’t want to have a billiard table where people can end up taking 40 minutes or more to just to finish one game (yes most people are this bad at billiards). You’re not Google or Facebook yet.

4. Be Human

One of the best things that you can do as a leader is to be empathetic to the idea that it’s not just you that is feeling the pressure. Make a point to check in on how your team is doing, and actively listen when they tell you how they’re feeling. (I know that I just added more stress to founders but hey, that’s we signed up for)

Like HubSpot showed us last week in their Culture Code, a strong company is built on great people. It can be all too easy to get so absorbed into our own founder chaos that lose sight of the pressures that our teams are facing. The good news is that bridging the gap doesn’t have to be time-consuming or expensive – it’s as easy as decompressing over a cup of coffee.

What are your favorite strategies for keeping teams happy and healthy?

About the Author: Ken is an experienced mobile app and game designer who is currently the CEO/Co-founder of Massive Damage, which released a hit top grossing hit game called Please Stay Calm for the iPhone and iPad. He is also the co-founder of Endloop Mobile, a leading mobile development studio building some of the most entertaining and innovative iPhone and iPad applications on the market, garnering media attention from Wired, Mashable, WSJ and others.

Photo Source: TechStars

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