Transitioning from Building a Product To Building a Company
Many founders come knocking on the Kool-Aid Factory door when they start feeling like the culture is slipping away. Our calls often start with some version of “I can’t believe this thing happened at our company.” It’s a scary moment but it’s also part of realizing that company-building is going to be as important as product-building going forward.
Here are some of the ways I’ve seen leaders gracefully navigate that transition from building a great product, to building a great company.
Not sure you’re there yet? Here’s a non-exhaustive list of tell-tale signs you might be there. I also talked to Erik Torenberg about these transitions, and culture more broadly–you can listen to that conversation here, on Village Global’s Venture Stories podcast.
From: company values and norms are upheld naturally
To: company values and norms need to be articulated
Derek Sivers said,”when you make a business, you get to make a little universe where you control all the laws. This is your utopia.”When your company is just getting started and the team is still small (and probably full of people you know personally and/or have worked with before), everyone probably has the same definition of utopia. Everyone on the team probably thrives naturally in your little universe without much intervention.
As the needs of the business and organization change, you’re going to need to bring on people with new kinds of skills and experiences and backgrounds and interests. And when that happens, it’s going to be harder to tell whether everyone still shares that definition of utopia. That’s when it’s time to start writing those down.
A shared agreement about what matters and how to get the work done and how to make decisions between reasonably good options is going to make the work better and bring your team closer. It’s also going to help ensure that you hire and retain the right people and perhaps more importantly, don’t hire/retain the wrong people.
From: individuals are the building blocks of the company
To: teams are the building blocks of the company
In the early days of building, the relationship of individuals to functions is typically 1:1. In other words, a single person is responsible for all of the company’s security, and another person is responsible for all of the company’s marketing.
So, it follows that you can get the best state of the workstream by talking to the single person. But, as the workstreams get more complex and organization sprawls, it’s unlikely that a single person can provide the full and reliable state on progress. So, founders are left to piece together the story based on a series of individual conversations. They go chasing information to reconcile conflicting reports or fill in gaps. It’s telephone meets Tetris. It often feels like a fools errand, but it’s better than ignorance. And on top of that, it leaves many founders with a calendar of back-to-back one-on-one all day every day.
There is a better way! As the building blocks of the company moves from individual to teams, leaders can also transition the way they preside over the work from 1:1’s to a series of forums. Some of these forums will sound familiar–quarterly business reviews, launch reviews, product reviews, security reviews. Many founders are surprised by how much less time they need to get higher quality insight and oversight over how work is going.
Another (more subtle but equally impactful) benefit is that forums create less political organizations. By bringing groups together, leaders have to do a lot less playing ‘telephone meets tetris’ and focus on the work itself. By orienting the company around the work instead of around the people who are producing it, things feel less personal/emotional for those involved which, in turn, helps everyone embody a more clear-eyed perspective on how the work is evaluated and pushed forward.
From: team members grab their own work ad hoc
To: getting crisp and prescriptive about who does what when
Early in a company’s life, knowing what to work on comes naturally. The team is probably operating in that blissful state of sharing a single vision, mission, or goal while having the precise combination of complementary skills required to get there. Everyone picks up the work in ways that just make sense. Ownership is clear. Coordination doesn’t take much thought. Stuff just gets done.
But, as a single centralized team becomes more loosely coupled and the company moves towards a multi-lane highway of product development, it’s time to create some more formal systems for deciding what to work on and coordinating how to get there. When it comes to the work, this might entail a more structured process for planning and reviewing work. When it comes to the people, this might entail rolling out performance expectations via ladders and levels or introducing a management layer.
But no matter what it is, there is a lot more prescription required to ensure the whole organization is rowing in the same direction. It’s a magical place to be!
From: trusting your intuition about how things are going
To: leaning on systems and processes to keep tabs on how things are going
I hear from a lot of founders who have recently been surprised–and not the fun kind. They had no idea this top performer was going to quit or this top user was about to churn. They couldn’t believe this thing took so, so, long to launch. They saw someone hired for a role they don’t think the company needs. Information still reliably flows to them, but it no longer paints the full picture required to run the company well.
This is when it’s time to start building out systems to keep the pulse on the org. This might come in the form of getting more serious about metrics and reporting, rolling out an employee voice survey, proactively soliciting user feedback, initiating some skip-level 1:1’s, or doing some ‘core sampling’ to get sporadic thoughts from trusted team members.
It takes time and discipline to set this up, but it unlocks more rigor in evaluating how things are going and through that, a shared understanding and confidence in articulating how things are really going that everyone can work from.
From: Information moves through osmosis to the right places
To: Prescribing systems for information flows
One of my favorite essays of all time is Bill Gate’s 1999 New Rules for Work. In it he describes a ‘digital nervous system’ that organizations can take advantage of to run maximally smoothly and efficiently. In his words, “the old saying knowledge is power sometimes makes people hoard knowledge. They believe that knowledge hoarding makes them indispensable. Power comes not from knowledge kept but from knowledge shared.”
Early on at a company, knowledge is shared by default. It moves in an almost osmosis-like way without any intervention. All the stuff worth sharing gets passed along or is easily pieced together over lunch, at the proverbial water cooler, or by simply poking around Slack, dipping into meetings, asking a friend, or reading a few docs.
But, there always comes a time when that becomes too much for any individual, especially the founder, to keep up with. That’s when prescribing a set of communication norms and channels comes in handy. That way, everyone knows where to go to find what they need to advance their work and operate with appropriate cross-functional context and knowledge.
Another way to think about this is the attitude of the work everyone sees. Instead of asking everyone to look at the ground-level stuff, everyone is encouraged to share a more curated and summarizing account of the work they’re doing. This is the best way to get the knowledge and experience of all the great work going on out of the corners of the organization and into the library of shared knowledge in a way that’s more easily consumed by a more global audience of their colleagues. And, it’s a much better way for leaders to not only keep tabs, but also reinforce and spotlight the stuff they want to do more of.
This comes through mechanisms like All Hands, designing the right set of Slack/email channels, getting more thoughtful about internal comms, defining transparency norms, and more.
If you’re looking for more help navigating these transitions, say hey! I’d love to help!