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‘Give Away Your Legos’ and Other Commandments for Scaling Startups (firstround.com)
126 points by astdb on Sept 10, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 64 comments

Great article, this is absolutely true. My greatest managers and mentors have been the ones who delegated a domain to me without micromanaging or meddling -- it made me feel valued, as well as let me know I was fully accountable for the outcome. Meanwhile, they were free to focus on other areas of the business, or even pursue new opportunities.

For myself, I once had to forego an assignment that I wanted because my boss didn't think he could do without me. This was a wake-up call for me that I needed to "hire my replacement" to give me the ability to move on.

>"Adding people doesn’t mean there’s less work for the people that are already there. It means that the entire company can do more."

I wish the article expanded further on this in the section on firing beyond the mantra of "fire fast." Taking the infamous Netflix presentation as an example, there may be plenty of other jobs that need to be done at the company, but the reality is the generalist wearing multiple may need to be swapped for a specialist wearing one or two. So there may not be any other jobs for that generalist, and it isn't necessarily a critique of their performance.

While the article touches briefly on this, it doesn't seem to follow through and connect it with the examples of questions/concerns people voice during phases of growth and team changes.

Unfortunately, unless it is deeply ingrained in the culture, it is often not a great approach as a manager to tell a team "well, your concerns are justified and we'll be evaluating whether there's still opportunities that are a good fit for you here." But that is ultimately the candid answer I think a lot of employees might be looking for in response to the sorts of questions the article gives as examples.

Is finding people really so easy that you can let a great generalist go so you can afford an specialist?

I ask because it's come up before in other contexts that money isn't enough. If someone says here's $26 million, start 4 projects that should supposedly take 2 years each and have them done on time! Assume each of those projects takes 25 people. Somehow you need to find 100 people all on day 1 to meet your deadline. Few companies can find 100 good people quickly. Can you find 1 a day? Well then 5 months until you're fully staffed. 1 a week? It will be 4 years until you have the people.

Maybe it works for Netflix but most companies struggle to find people to hire.

Just to be clear, I'm not necessarily saying I agree with the approach. I think it might work for Netflix and other companies in certain circumstances. But like all leadership advice, every circumstance is unique to some degree and needs to be handled accordingly.

That said, I personally think there is a lot of value in certain types of generalists, but not all (or rather, not in all cases).

You see, when a company is very young, they may not have the best and brightest, but rather the people that were willing to shoulder a ton of risk, burn the midnight oil, etc. They may have been lucky to get both, but optimizing for one is not a guarantee of getting the other. So you get to a point where you can afford to hire more experienced individuals, and suddenly you might be faced with the ability to replace your current generalist with a much more experienced generalist, or a generalist that is T-shaped in their skill set.

I used to think I was T-shaped (wide range of skills, very deep in one), and then I started becoming more M-shaped because I've gone very deep down multiple paths in my career. That was when I realized the sum of the parts is greater than the whole, and it enabled me to work exceptionally well in cross-functional technical environments. Specifically in my case, I started out in the marketing/advertising world, then went deep in analytics, and have gotten progressively more technical over the course of my career in terms of coding. Turns out that happens to be a valuable generalist combination.

But even certain combinations may not be right for a company that wants someone who specialized in X for their entire career, and I respect that.

Ultimately, experienced, high-performing generalists will have a relatively easy time finding jobs either elsewhere, or within their current company as it grows. Often times that turns into leadership roles. When it doesn't is when I could see you running into more issues with finding something new to do at the current company if they have fewer generalist individual contributor roles.

Your reasons are exactly why I would not get into an early stage startup as a generalist without a lot of equity. Too many "rationalist" managers out there that think the way you suggest. Despite the fact the generalist provided a valuable service, you don't need them any more, fire away.

It's hard for me to believe that you can't find roles in a growing company for a generalist. My experience has certainly been different.

Especially since you will be a specialist in the company's chosen technology and processes.

The generalist / specialist dichotomy is toxic on its face.

Oh, you can't. That's not because there's no task for a generalist to do, but because the company gets organized in feuds, and any empathy with a different feud (or much worse, doing their job) will mark you as a betrayer to some group.

As a generalist, my company has got around this issue by having me bushwack new stuff while the specialists come and take over doing all the things I was doing (but better.)

I imagine at some point I will no longer be useful and I can leave the company entirely doing some occasional consulting for them.

As a generalist, I welcome this day and look forward to another place to whip into shape.

I think there will always be casualties where individuals get left behind in fast growing companies, but I don't think generalist vs specialist is the biggest problem. First of all, because it's extremely reductive. People have different skillsets and potentials across multiple axes. The generalist vs specialist distinction tries to make this binary when it's not even a single continuum.

Yes, in practice companies will need more specialists, but the thing about a generalist is they do lots of things, so there's always something else for them to pick up on and dive deeper on. By the end of their tenure they may even find themselves in the specialist bucket! But in any case, this transition doesn't happen overnight anyway. You will always need people to explore new areas, and you will never be able to find the perfect candidate for every role you dream up. In practice you want to hire great people whenever you can get them and help them find their own role.

Reminds me of the time when Sun Microsystems fell apart into several different companies: SunSoft, Sun Labs, etc.

Scott McNealy called an all-hands meeting, and made grand sweeping gestures with his arms while imploring everyone: "Stop hugging your trees! Everyone has to let go of their tree! No more tree hugging!"

As if we understood what the hell he was talking about because we'd all read the same management self-help books about preventing tree hugging in large corporations that he had, and that by making tree hugging and releasing gestures, everybody would be able to empathize with him and figure out what the the fuck he meant.

After the meeting, I confronted my manager: "You never game me a tree! Why didn't I ever get a tree? I want my tree! I promise not to hug it, but I want one too!"

One issue: Lego is the plural of Lego.

Legos make tomato paste.

Sidenote: If you're trying to coin a catchy phrase - make sure it's correct and doesn't play into a grammatical flame war.

I just can't bring myself to care. I'm a life-long lego fan, been playing with them since I was old enough to play with Duplo. As an adult, I've got shelves covered in lego sets, a lego brick tattooed on my wrist, and saw Lego Movie on release day. And I don't give a single shit what people call the bricks so long as it's not megablok, one of the other knockoff brands, or for some reason K'Nex.

I'm not lego's marketing department, I'm not their lawyer, I'm not their CEO. It's not up to me to give a crap about the pedantic nonsense that is their preference for how you refer to their product. It's not brand confusion. Lego, Legos, LEGO, LEGOS, whatever. People know what you're talking about, and they aren't getting the name "lego" mixed up with anything. People that see the Megabloks and other knock offs and think that they're legos are what they need to worry about. But an informed child, consumer, etc. knows better already. It didn't take very many Megablok sets before I realize they were incredibly inferior in quality and the colors were way off. Lego is obviously the superior product even to a child.

Okay so I lied. I do care, a lot. More than I should. But I'm just so sick of pedantic idiots hopping into conversations like some sort of know it all "WELL ACTUALLY....". Fuck off. Lego, legos, LEGOS, LEGO, doesn't matter we all know what's being talked about. And derailing discussions over that nonsense is obnoxious.

A discussion is what it is and in this case a meta discussion on the language used in an article is no less appropriate given the response.

I couldn't bring myself to read it and wasn't alone and it annoyed me enough to say something. Should she have known better or care - maybe not. Her audience is probably just Silicon Valley and extend to the rest of the US.

But this is the Internet, so welcome to the wider world.

Honestly if you can't bring yourself to read an article because of a brand used incorrectly, you need to get a grip. Fast.

English people should give up on making new and weird rules for pluralising words in their language. We (a certain slavic country) just use consistent rules on almost all words, and never have a problem. Why the hell does it matter how the danish pluralise "lego"?

In colloquial North American English "Legos" is pretty common. The effort to get people to not use the form "Legos" seems to originate from branding. The Lego company does not want "Lego" to refer to all brick toys, much the way that Kleenex does not want "kleenex" to mean any paper tissue. Anyway, pushing for "proper usage" is an uphill battle ;)

To British ears, it just sounds wrong. It sets off our grammar sensors, not our trademark infringement sensors. It's absolutely not a complaint about genericisation of the Lego brand.

"I need more legos to finish off this house" sounds, to a Brit, like someone saying "I need more sands to finish off this sandcastle," or "I need more ices to finish this ice sculpture". Lego is kind of like a substance in our language. Pluralizing it is just wrong.

Or "I'm going to take a maths course"? :-)

We just worry that out of all of mathematics, Americans seem to only want to study one singular math.

"The Lego company does not want "Lego" to refer to all brick toys, much the way that Kleenex does not want "kleenex" to mean any paper tissue."

I do not believe this at all. Being the default word for its category is the truest sign of the penetration of a brand.

Even so, a company will want to avoid losing the trademark: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generic_trademark#Avoiding_gen... (Lego is one of the examples as a success story for this approach)

Lego the company was fiercely protective of their IP. They had a patent they regularly enforced. Once the patent expired they took MegaBlocks to court trying to claim the shape of their bricks was trademarked (they lost this... but took it all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court).

It's also a sign that you're becoming a commodity which is bad for business. You can Xerox your document on a Canon, but you can't Google something on Bing.

Here is a specific example of them requesting customers to help protect the brand by not calling them "legos".



Companies seem to think different about this.

When a publication like The Atlantic Monthly, one of the most venerable and critically acclaimed bastions of the English language, literature, and culture, refers to them as "Legos" (http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/02/-em...), it means you can finally crawl down off your absurd high horse and give it a rest. Thank you for your service, sir. Here's your lapel pin. There's a doctor down the hall if you need to talk about your feelings.

I stopped reading it, it was jarring to see multiple times.

I'm really curious; where are you from? Use of the "Legos" plural form here in the United States seems to be by far the majority. What areas in the world get it right?

So I guess US usage would be "Look at all my Legos". How does that work in singular? "Give me that red Lego"?

In the UK I've only heard Lego referred to like: "Give me that red brick", "Give me that red Lego brick", "Look at all my Lego", "Look at all my Lego bricks"

In the US usage, "legos" refers to many blocks. "Lego" is generally used as an adjective, referring to things constructed from many legos. "Lego house" or "Lego car", for example. It has been a while since I played with them, but to refer to a single brick, I would usually mention the size. "The red 2x4", for example, to refer to a red lego brick that has 8 pips.

Interesting point about the adjective, it's the same here. So the only difference seems to be when referring to a pile of bricks.

In the UK we call them lego because we consider it to be a mass noun, like sand rather than sands, and a grain of sand and a piece of lego.

I've heard "Legos" said plenty of times in England. So while it might not be correct it's hardly uncommon.

Weird. Lived here all my life, only time I've ever heard it is in "look at those wacky Yanks" conversations. South coast/London here. Maybe it's regional?

Trying to pattern match on my experiences, I might conclude that it's an age thing. People over 40 are more likely to say "Legos" than those under 30.

From a UK perspective. I'm 48, most of my friends are 38-60'ish, we all call it Lego. I'm more inclined to believe that it's younger people in the UK (under 25-30) that use "Legos", simply due to the availability of US kids telly that us older farts never had (I barely had three channels up until 2002 - BBC1/2 and Channel4). My ex's kids picked up some of these aberrations ("so fun" instead of "so much fun" is an example that used to grate for me). There were so many times I wanted to sabotage that bloody Sky box.

Like math? ;)

I struggled. It's interesting to me just how annoying I find that word. (Native Brit).

There is the possibility that it's been drilled into our brains from a very young age.


Not even Xerox can Xerox. [1] [2]

Not even Lego has Legos. [3]

[1] https://beta.worldcat.org/archivegrid/collection/data/880574...

Just a little reminder from Xerox / prepared by Needham, Harper & Steers Advertising, Inc. -- Not even Xerox can Xerox / prepared by Needham Harper Worldwide, Inc. (March 1985) -- Once a trademark, not always a trademark / [Xerox Corporation].

[2] https://trademarkmusings.wordpress.com/2009/12/05/not-even-x...

Though it was a long time ago, I recall that my law school Business Torts casebook contained a copy of Xerox’s old ad, “Not Even Xerox Can Xerox”, which Xerox used to promote proper use of its trademark and fight genericide. Back in the day, Xerox was by far the most well-know copier brand, leased by offices all over. In this day and age, now that most people have a copier at home (as part of a multifunction printer) and it could be a Canon, HP, Brother, Epson or other brand, I think the younger folk are not so likely to refer to copying as “Xeroxing”. It poses an interesting quandary: Xerox may be winning the genericide war but they are no longer dominating the competition. Which is preferable?

[3] http://www.lego.com/en-us/legal/legal-notice/fair-play

Proper Use of the LEGO Trademark on a Web Site

If the LEGO trademark is used at all, it should always be used as an adjective, not as a noun. For example, say "MODELS BUILT OF LEGO BRICKS". Never say "MODELS BUILT OF LEGOs". Also, the trademark should appear in the same typeface as the surrounding text and should not be isolated or set apart from the surrounding text. In other words, the trademarks should not be emphasized or highlighted. Finally, the LEGO trademark should always appear with a ® symbol each time it is used.

Then "lego" isn't the LEGO® trademark, therefore legos is perfectly acceptable.

If you want to fix a real grammatical problem that's getting worse, how about going after the "anyways" crowd.


It's now being used as the filler word in podcasts.

That's a ways off of being fixed.

Hopefully, people will take to the correct usage.

Is that true for other branded items (such as Oreo cookies) or is it uniquely Lego bricks which incite this type of pedantry?

It depends. In the US, trademarks are intended to protect the consumer, not the company. If consumers no longer associate a name with a particular brand, then the company loses control over the trademark. So long as a company continues to defend the trademark, they maintain control of it. That is why, for example, Xerox had a massive advertising campaign for the use of the word "photocopy". Previously, "Xerox" was used to refer to making a copy of a document, and Xerox (the company) was in danger of losing the trademark.

Wikipedia has a good list of names that are in the process of becoming generic, much to the dismay of the companies that hold the trademarks.


While you are technically correct (at least in the USA) there are many examples in that least that are widely used as generics for decades while style maintaining trademark protection: 'Kleenex', 'Bubble Warp', 'Dictaphone'...

> In the US, trademarks are intended to protect the consumer, not the company.

They are meant to protect each in different ways.

> "During her 4+ years at Facebook, the company exploded from 500 employees serving 80 million users to 5,500 employees and over 1.1 billion users."

Tangential to the article. But, I find it kind of surprising that the employee to user base growth was linear. I would expect it to be closer to logarithmic in a well run company. Although I have no data points. Am I off base?

Facebook does a whole lot more now than they did when there were 80M users. I think if they provided the same functionality over the years this would be more concerning.

Sorry for the nitpick, but is it logarithmic or exponential in this case?

To the point, I would not be surprised if 5,500 was the "settling" point. In my experience, the hiring pendulum takes some time to swing far enough to include an adequate number of employees in a rapidly scaling environment. (e.g., I would not be surprised if 500 million users were served by 750 employees.)

Further more, without a third datapoint, it will always be linear. Unless you're including 0,0?

I think he meant the number of employees and the number of users remained proportional.

I dunno, hopping on board the rocket ship still seems a lot easier than building the rocket ship.

But building the rocket ship is more fun.

Especially if you know it's going to explode midair once it's launched and you don't have to be in it when it does.

Cognitive dissonance: This seems true to me, and so does the idea that adding people to a project late in the game makes it later (as per Fred Brooks).

There is some good advice buried in this nauseatingly sycophantic puff piece.

I hate the infantilism of modern "tech". We're adults who play in ball pits, have a ping pong table, office Nerf wars, and have our metaphors in Lego format, pre-chewed for easy digestion!

And there are plenty of people who eat that shit up. I know a lot of engineers are a bit socially retarded, but is it helping us to progress to accept this infantilization? Can we stop pretending to be "big kids"?

What's wrong with a ping pong table? It's a good way for some low stakes inter-office competition, a place to have some brainstorming/lighter conversations, and a good excuse to get up off your butt for a couple of games a day.

amen, the faster we can give away with the bros office culture the better.

sadly it's central to the silly con valley ploy, so don't expect change to come out from here. there's plenty company out there that value professionalism out of its workforce, but those aren't building cool toys for mid twenties bros.

Amen here, as well.

I've spent the last 17 years working for (and now running) tech startups in Boston; the worst of them ceded all fun to cube farms, but the best of them never went all-in on the culture described here. Perhaps there is an east/west coast division here?

I look at the folks working alongside me now, building an incredibly sophisticated machine learning engine for cybersecurity, and I wouldn't think to draw upon a Lego metaphor for what they're doing. It's hard, substantive, mathematical work, and certainly not akin to playing with toys. I expect my senior engineers, sales guys, and marketers to be both protective of the brand we're building and understanding of the need to grow fast and expand our teams.

I live in Toronto and work independently. Productivity = prosperity, and so I live a life of work punctuated by relaxation an rest.

Of the tech companies that have tried to woo me, most fall into this infantilization trap and its such a big turn-off. If the reason I should come work with you is because you have a foosball table and on fridays you put a keg in the break room......I want to build things! I want to create. I will take your company and move it forward, I dont have time for ping pong.

Shouldnt the goal be to make your comoany rich, so you can be rewarded enough to buy the comforts YOU want, instead of lounging in the comforts of an employer as you work?

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