Startup general interest

The problem with indispensable employees

By December 10, 2012 5 Comments

Rand Fishkin, one of the better thinker/bloggers out there on startup culture in the connected age, put up a great post on indispensable employees.

For me the key section is his advice to CEOs and founders:

Startup Employers/Founders – I know we’ve all had that one engineer who’s the only one that understands the middleware code and without him/her, everything could fall apart. Guess what? That’s a business risk that you created and you need to fix. And until you build a culture where redundancy, not superstar individual efforts are rewarded, your startup will stay tiny and your growth pains will be excruciating.

The same holds true for the marketer (or growth hacker if you have a semantic preference) who controls your customer acquisition channels, the salesperson who dominates your revenue creation, or the operations person without whom, you wouldn’t even know how to issue paychecks. These are fundamental flaws in your organization just waiting to explode and cause interminable chaos. They’re part of the reason you’re working nights and weekends, and feel like the next crisis is only a heartbeat away. They’re also what separates the first-time founders from the repeat successes who built company after company that scales and exits.

Rand also points out that, perhaps counter-intuitively, becoming indispensable is a bad strategy for employees as well, because by making themselves indispensable they create the problems described above thereby reducing the chances of the company hitting paydirt. Following this logic through, only employees who are more concerned about their salary and personal position than the success of the company would makes themselves indispensable and resist efforts to build redundant processes. Let me indulge in a rhetorical flourish and ask – are these the sort of people you want in your company?

Wise words from Rand, but they take courage and good management skills to implement. There are of course a million things that fast growing companies have to worry about and building redundancy into process is one of those things that everyone agrees is a good idea, but often doesn’t get to the top of the priority list partly because there is no short term payoff and partly because it is often difficult. That can be ok (but not ideal) up to the point when the company starts to take off, say around the Series A or when the employee count grows past 20-30, but after that the longer it’s left the harder it gets to sort out.