Another startup culture bash was making the rounds, this time about a common term in the startup world – “getting shit done”, and what a terrible mentality it is to have. Disclaimer – I know the author personally, as him and I were at the same 500startups batch this summer, and I also consider him a good friend. But I think he’s completely off on this one.
What does “getting shit done” mean?
Getting shit / stuff done is a figure of speech that means getting a bunch of work finished, i.e, done. This is an overall useful skill, but especially critical in the early-stage startup context, where every employee needs to handle multiple responsibilities and juggle multiple ongoing tasks at the same time. It is also an approximate metric for productivity (see chart).
Other people have broke it down better than I could on the common causes shit doesn’t get done. The ones I noticed the most in people I’ve worked with are lack of urgency and lack of follow through – people who get shit done are self-directed and motivated, and do not to be prodded constantly to get results.
Why is this especially important for (early-stage) startups?
A startup runs on people, and the smaller it is, the more important each member of the team is. There is a lot of work to be done, and very few people to do it.
The article mentioned at the beginning makes fun of it, but hustle is very important, especially for early stage startups. I like to think of hustle with a sports analogy, for example, basketball – players who hustle are those that dive on the floor for loose balls, keep shuffling their feet on defense, box-out when the ball is in the air – basically do all the little things that don’t show up in the box score but may be the difference between winning or losing.
Similarly, in startups, hustle means people should always be thinking – how can I make better use of my time to achieve mine and the company’s goals? how can I help my team members do their job better? am I passing up opportunities just because it’s outside of my comfort zone? In other words, it’s putting that extra effort and concentration to get things done.
It can be just reminding a team member of something they need to do and motivating them, or sending another follow-up Email to someone who hasn’t responded to the previous two, or driving all the way from San Francisco to Los Angeles and back on the same day to meet a top investor (we actually did that).
Getting Shit Done
As a founder, I don’t expect every employee to be as driven as me – but I do expect them to be motivated and self-directed. Even without working 80 hours a week (our team works 8 hour days, 5 days a week for a grand total of 40 hours. Of course, founders work beyond office hours), I want them to make progress and if they get stuck to find solutions – including coming to talk to me or anyone else on the team when they need help, and we’ll do our best to solve it together.
The main difficulty in startups, is that you have a *ton* of work to do, and very few people to do it. Everybody has multiple responsibilities (at least at an early stage) – If they can’t juggle all of those responsibilities and make sure progress is being made on each front, the company suffers.
The founders especially, have a shit ton of work to do – they are not “managers” as the article put it, they are team members. Yes, they should know the most about the business and goals, and help convey it to the team and keep running the operation as smoothly as possible. However, they are also “employees” themselves, tasked with multiple responsibilities and need to get shit done.
Only once a startup reaches a certain size, can room (and capital) for full-time managers be made – employees whose entire function is to help everyone else function. And personally, I’m a big fan of companies with a flat structure (which includes fan favorites GitHub, Valve and 37 Signals) – companies where everybody is responsible for something without supervisors telling them what to do and push them when they become complacent.
About culture fit
Another frequently bashed term – culture fit – can affect an employee’s ability to get shit done. Cultural fit describes how well the employees responds to the way shit gets done at a company. This includes adapting to the current communication channels (email, chat, voice, video, in office, remote, etc.) and the way goals are set and progress is measured, meshing with existing team members, compatibility with the product and target audience, amongst other things.
If an employee is not a good culture fit, it stands to reason he won’t get shit done. It’s often not easy to determine whether someone will be a good cultural fit or not, and when they’re not, attempts to change a bad fit into a good one are unsuccessful more often than not (at least, from personal experience).
Considering the short runway and the amount of work that falls on the shoulders of relatively few people at early stage startups, getting shit done is often the end-all measure of whether someone is a contributing team member or not.
It’s an intangible attribute, not something you tell employees
Circling back to the article that motivated this post, the claim was that startup “managers” are telling their employees to “just get shit done” when they aren’t producing. I may be inexperienced (I’ve only been in this business for 10 years), but I’ve never seen anything like that in any startup or company I’ve ever known, worked at or founded. It seems like common sense that nothing will change by just shouting “get shit done” at employees (Do people actually do that?).
The article in question is really about managers that don’t know how to motivate and best use their employees – On that point I agree, that is definitely not a recipe for success (would anyone argue otherwise?). It’s unfortunate it chose to vilify and misinterpret a mentality that is not inherently bad or toxic, and actually quite important when looking to hire for a startup.
Everybody Needs To Make A Difference
In a big company, a few hires that don’t pan out immediately can be absorbed without any (significant) impact on the bottom line. It’s fine if it takes them a year to ease in to their job, or if they perform at just adequate levels. As long as there are enough people who “get shit done”, the company will move along just fine.
At an early stage startup, your time and capital is very limited (and related to each other). If your capital + revenue indicate you can hire 8 full time employees for 18 months, that’s all you can do (unless you want to go broke). You don’t have the capacity to absorb employees who aren’t pulling their weight – there are just not enough people to do all of the work required to get the next stage.
Early stage startups don’t have the support structure in place to give every hire the 6-12 months of grace period that larger companies can. They don’t have employee training programs, and the tactics and environment are constantly changing and evolving. That is why you need special people as early employees in startups – people who are adaptable and quick learners, who can get stuff done themselves and use other team members proactively when they need help.
That is what separates A players from B and C players in this context. The latter can be incredibly talented individuals – by all accounts, A players at a big company – but if they are not motivated and self directed, they are not a good fit for an early stage startup.
We get shit done as a team, or die
The stage between bootstrapping and a stable, significant revenue flow is the most critical and vulnerable for a startup. Once you start growing the team beyond the founding members and take on additional salaries, you can no longer just be “ramen-profitable” – you have a responsibility to other people’s livelihood and often also to investors who put their money and faith in you.
Startups have a limited run-rate in which they either make it work, or go under. And it can only happen if the team gets shit done.
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