This post is part of this week’s Startup Edition to answer the question: What mistakes have you made?
the gtrot “cave”, February 2011
After closing our Series A for gtrot* in January 2011 our first priority was bringing our technology development in-house from an offshore development company. We could now offer competitive salaries, pay for job listings and sell the company vision backed by the confidence of a VC. Problem solved, right? Wrong. What I failed to realize is that the difficult part of hiring is not getting people in the door, it’s empowering people to do their best work inside your company.
At first, I thought the opportunity would sell itself. Within the first few months after financing we hired two engineers and a designer. We sold them on building the future of travel and the ability to wear jeans to the office. I kept tabs on what other companies offered in terms of employee perks and ensured our offer was competitive, including catered lunches, late night dinner, an education/conference budget to attend outside events, weekly happy hours and more. I believed we were building a company culture on par with other successful startups.
The future seemed bright. We rebuilt the website’s backend before publicly relaunching gtrot 2.0 in May. Our team spent long days together in our ‘cave’ and it felt good to be working hard alongside so many talented people. The month leading up to our ship date was incredibly exciting and draining.
Mission Accomplished (or so I thought.) In May 2011 we relaunched and were featured on every major tech blog. We celebrated with a team dinner and made sure to recongize everyone’s contributions. I thought the team was closer than ever.
As with many TechCrunch announcements, we saw a huge spike of traffic the following week and foolishly perceived it as early viral growth. Over the next few weeks, new sign-ups slowed down, then trickled. We hadn’t found the sustained growth that we were expecting and things inside our company became tense.
What went wrong? We believed so much in the vision that the fact it wasn’t exploding gave everyone a lurking feeling that product decisions were to blame. We should’ve done X. We should’ve changed the language to Y. There was a breakdown of trust and communication fueled by exhaustion and unrealistic expectations that began to plague our team.
Since it was easy to chat about decisions when things were good, we failed to invest in building strong communication channels for problems. Equally, I made the mistake of thinking that the team physically sitting in one room meant we had a culture of open communication. As a founder, I assumed my team knew they could talk to me about anything. I made the mistake of not proactively encouraging and supporting that.
Here was the big mistake we made: poor planning for routine and strategic communications among the team caused both the team and the product to suffer.
We did what seemed to make sense at the time. We set up regular meetings, added more communication channels and worked with each employee closer one-on-one. But culture change didn’t happen overnight.
Over the next six months our team grew but we saw talented people leave. Startups can be emotionally and physically taxing. If working with your team feels like a battlefield then there’s no reason to stick around no matter how big or sexy the opportunity is.
So here’s the message: save yourself some time and don’t make the same mistake of putting off creating a culture of open communication and trust. Start today by creating the roadmap to empower everyone in your organization and make sure you select measures that let you know how you’re doing against that goal. Great products require empowered people to build them.
*In 2012 we pivoted gtrot into Boomerang so the website now redirects you there.
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Have you worked for a company with great or non-existent culture? Share in the comments or tweet me @br_ttany.
Want to read about other mistakes founders have made? Check out this week’s Startup Edition on mistakes.