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The Hardest Part of Working at a Growth Startup (staysaasy.com)
54 points by svmanager 4 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 35 comments

CEOs tend to hire sub-par "experienced" replacement who often don't care as much about the company as the in-house manager that they've just replaced. I found many larger-co managers to be far too hands off, and having difficulty keeping up for a variety of reasons, partly due to the more chaotic nature of a growth startup. They try to impose a process to help slow & order things - but inherent complexity can't really be gotten rid of, so this effort often ends up destroying a major competitive advantage the startup enjoys, which is adaptability and fast execution.

If a senior exec hasn't gone through rapid growth AND its aftermath, they're not truly qualified for the job.

Ironically the best of the best companies are very resilient to incompetence, so it doesn't really matter who you hire.

It seems like there’s an even better solution, not mentioned here, which is: if you are masterminding growth but you are having to frequently fight for your life, rather than getting better at fighting for your life, become a founder. You already know how to achieve revenue growth. Now no one can push you out.

I mean that’s basically the deal with founders: all the time people who are inexperienced get thrust into a leadership position, and the company sinks, or they rise to the occasion. And if they’ve bootstrapped without VC equity, then the only way they’re leaving is if the company goes bankrupt.

I’d rather do the hard thing one time than the slightly less hard thing multiple times, without having to explain away multiple firings - the cost of the situation in the article, which no one wants to pay.

Great points, but not everyone wants to be a founder. Some people join high growth startups to move up quickly in corporate so they can hit executive level positions faster in their career. In this case, they probably still value job security and are significantly more risk averse than someone who would jump straight into being a founder.

Some of the comments here are focusing on the "fired" and "CEO" aspects of this post and missing the bigger picture:

The hardest part of working at a growth startup is that it is exhausting.

The downside and upside of this are two sides of the same coin: you're basically working at multiple different companies throughout the growth process. People who get comfortable at a given point in time are left behind when the company continues to scale. People who are scaling themselves have frequent opportunities to take on more responsibility and choose their own adventure.

You aren't literally "re-interviewing for your job every year" but you do need to grow with the company or the company will hire externally to fill the needs that have emerged.


A related note is that not every individual thrives at all of these stages. You don't need to "constantly scale yourself" if that isn't what you want to do. Move on when the time is right or join companies at the level of maturity that you prefer.

Some people love the initial launch and scrappy small team vibe; some people hate the chaos and prefer more structure. Some like being told what to do; some hate hierarchies and "bureaucratic red tape!". Some like to build from nothing; some like to refine and optimize what exists.

Be aware of your optimal environment, needs, and goals then try to find roles and companies that are a good fit.

"A related note is that not every individual thrives at all of these stages. You don't need to "constantly scale yourself" if that isn't what you want to do. Move on when the time is right or join companies at the level of maturity that you prefer."

OP here, agreed on that. Another interesting thing I've noticed is that some people thrive at several different stages – e.g. great at ideation in the early scrappy days, and also great when you need new ideas during later growth stages, but less likely to thrive in between. There aren't really black and white answers.

Thanks for reading!

I think the issue about all of this going unspoken is the real problem, especially with first-time founders. As with any performance issue, none of this should come suddenly and unexpectedly. The CEO should be setting expectations around what kind of growth you need to be creating within the company, and if you're not then it'll be more understandable that you may be replaced or demoted.

That said, I really think that early on, it's much better to give execs the title of "Head of X" rather than director or VP. It indicates that you're in charge, which is the important thing, but it can prevent the need for demotion later. If you just call everyone a VP even though you're a 20 person company and most VPs have 1-2 reports, it can become a problem when you need to hire someone over one of them. If they're just the head of X, then you can either explain that they've been performing at the director level, so now you're going to calibrate their title to that and hire a VP to help mentor them, etc., or you can just make the "Head of X" titles more specific. For example, if you have someone who was Head of Marketing early on, you can tell them that they've been doing a great job as a generalist marketer but now you need them to focus on a particular area (e.g. you're now "Head of Content Marketing"), and you're going to hire a manager to oversee the department.

Hey @awillen, thanks for reading!

The "Head of X" idea is an interesting one that I've seen gain traction recently for the reasons you've described. As with all things, at least half the battle is just managing expectations well.

I think this article hits on an important problem, but it's the second article I've read so far from this blog that seems a little short on solutions. You probably /know/ that you have to "scale yourself up" if you're in this situation -- that's not the hard part! The hard part is...how?

You have to hire someone more senior than you. Someone who has already done the thing you've been trying to do. That's it. That's the only way. And if that someone who's more senior than you, if they don't respect you?

Well, that's is the challenge of leadership. Servant leadership and leading with the humility to deserve the respect of those who are technically "more senior" than you are is I think when leadership is put to the test. For some, this is not a huge change of pace. But for others, this is a huge challenge.

> even founding CEOs are not immune.

Especially founding CEOs are not immune with < 25% making it to the end.

See the founders dilemma:


I really enjoy these articles and I can relate to a lot of them personally. Last time it was posted I went through a rabbit hole of reading through a bunch of it.

I am wondering why HN in general doesn’t seem to like these articles? I don’t get it.

I see them as a combo of common sense and struggle porn.

First little bit is talking up the stakes of how bad things could be. Hype up the difficulty level.

The “how to scale yourself” section is just a quick blurb of common advice you see everywhere. “Keep learning” and “ask questions” is advice I’ve seen in the last 50 LinkedIn posts I have read.

Struggle porn is a fantastic characterization, alas when I googled it of course there's actual struggle porn :{

Learn to use incognito when safe search is off?

Do people who have been let go in this manner get looked down upon by future prospective interviewers? Or is it understood this happens regularly?

Officially, people aren’t “let go” from high ranking positions. They’re either gently demoted into a lesser role with the expectation that they are expected to find another job, or they “step away to spend more time with their families” or similar excuses.

As for future prospects: Potential employers know that unemployed people are easier hires than employed people, so compensation might be lower. They might also be concerned about the reasons for the person’s dismissal, especially if the person’s tenure was short (1-2 years).

On the other hand, an unemployed person is available to be hired ASAP, which can be attractive to fast moving startups who can’t afford to wait for months of recruiting, interviewing, negotiating, and then notice periods. Some times you’ll see these people hired into consultant roles first as a sort of trial run before real employment. In fact, many people who are dismissed from high-ranking startup positions voluntarily switch to consulting for a while anyway.

Hey @shostack, thanks for reading!

From what I've observed this does not tend to get looked down upon severely, and if anything it's usually the opposite. If someone sees that you took X from 0-100, they'll already be impressed even if you struggled at 100-1000 (unless that's very specifically what they need). It's also not that easy to do the forensics to realize that someone had trouble scaling, and most resume readers won't care enough to uncover that relatively minor detail.

Additionally, many people transition out of scaling startups of their own accord – eg you get "topped" by an outside hire and bounce on good terms. People get it.

There are tens of millions of interviewers out there, however, so YMMV for any one case.

The authors are trying hard to stay anonymous for some reason. They're giving a bunch of advice but it sounds like they're rehashing the same old stuff that you hear everywhere, like they're trying to SEO or something. I doubt they've ever even started a business, much less a successful growth SaaS company.

Okay. What’s the solution?

I don't believe this to be true for the most part, but if it is, then quit immediately and find a real job.

The 'benefits' are generally not worth it for someone to have to asses you everyone once and a while wherein you can get axed.

You have to ask yourself some very serious questions as to why you're there in the first place.

It's fair if you have to hire your boss or something like that, ie you're 23 hired as 'C-' something and now they need someone who actually knows what they are doing, but that's if it's within expectations, and they don't need to fire you.

For founders with tons of equity, it's understandable if there's a shift in responsibility, but not getting axed unless there's an obvious issue.

Unless you are saving babies or literally stopping the Nazis from taking over the world, you don't need to be 'patriotic' to your team. Just professionally loyal.

Every job you get assessed periodically and can be fired if you're not performing up to par. In a growth startup, performing up to par as an executive means being able to scale to the next level if needed. You get a fancy title, a bunch of equity and the chance to jump a few management levels if you can keep up. The reason they wouldn't want to keep someone who got "demoted" around is because they too often will have an axe to grind and cause issues.

This is really not the right description for a few reasons.

1) In normal circumstances, you get hired to do 'job A' it's not unheard of to get let go quickly if you can't do 'job A' but rare to get leg to after some time. Getting fired after a review because after 3 years, somehow you're not 'qualified' to do your job doesn't happen that often. Layoff, yes, but fired, no.

2)_It's not a helpful analogy because at a startup if you're 'VP or Head of A' - the job of managing 0 people, to managing 3 to 10 to a division is going to obviously change tremendously.

So it's more like 'We hired you to do Job A, now it's Job B, you're not quite qualified so you're out'.

If this is a scenario you think you could be in, you need to quit now, there's almost zero chance it's worth the time or effort to be there.

A lot of the equity may be unvested. What has vested and not exercisable may not be within reach for the staffer to actually afford to buy. There may be wash-out rounds later that will dilute the leavers significantly while those who stay get issued more equity.

It's understandable that a company wants to have more capable and senior people in roles as they scale, but that doesn't mean the individual has to go - they can 'hire their boss', they can do other strategic things. Technical people for example can go on to technical leadership roles instead of classical product or management.

If a company also wants to put someone in the role of VP of whatever, knowing they're going to need someone considerably more senior in the future, and effectively will have to let go of said person ... and that mutual understanding is not there to begin with ... then it's also a problem in management.

The only role for which there is essentially a tacit understanding from the start would be CEO as there are serious discussions and expectations there, for most other roles there is not.

Finally, I would say that for more senior roles, jobs are not as easy coming as they are otherwise. Young people tend to not grasp how impactful changing roles and careers can be. If you're 23 and you have to go back to 'writing code' like you did 'just last year' - that's fine. Probably. But for most other people it's an existential calamity. It's a really, really big deal.

While Valley people do understand the concept of 'getting let go' - even then, it's still not looked well upon. Systematically companies like to hire people that are in that role already and employed. Outside the Valley failure is not well recognized and they will not care about 'how much said person learned'. It could be a career ending/destroying situation.

If you were hired for a senior role, but expect there's a decent chance you'll get let go as the company grows - you've been duped and you're at the wrong company. Move on.

>Finally, I would say that for more senior roles, jobs are not as easy coming as they are otherwise.

I went through this when my company was acquired. I led an Engineering team of about 30 people. About 6 months after we were acquired, the company moved its own people in and I got moved into an IC role after about 4-5 years of being "no code". At that point, I realized I had no interest in a) being the mentor for my new boss who was not technical and very junior and b) writing code any more. 15 years of coding was enough for me, so I moved on.

If you're at a startup early enough to have an overly inflated title and can't tolerate the risk of getting fired (career, etc.) then you should not be at a startup, period. Startups are risky, they run out of funding, they lay people off, markets shift, competitors beat them, etc, etc. Getting fired for not scaling is probably the least likely way for you to lose your job.

This article gave me a queasy feeling like we’ve reached a terrible form of late stage capitalism.

The steps seem to go like this:

1. You work your ass off in a growth company only to be told that you, the person who partially made the success possible in the first place, can now be replaced with someone better, even though you have already done a great job.

2. This is normal and expected and not just the sign of a company with abusive policies.

3. This is spun as a good thing for the employee, somehow.

This sort of capitalist bullshit is why even high-paid specialist roles like professional athletes have workers unions.

Because if the company had their way they’d throw you in the trash the moment they could find someone better than you, despite your contributions making the company’s success possible in the first place.

Now you’re kicked to the curb with no/bad equity, and if you don’t like it you can screw off to the next abusive venture-backed employer, who operate the same way.

"Now you’re kicked to the curb with no/bad equity" - where did this come from? In this situation, in which you've done such a good job that the company has effectively outgrown your skillset, you almost certainly have equity (it's unlikely this all happened in <1 year) and it's almost certainly good equity. That's one of the reasons this isn't so bad, and to a degree you should be okay with it - you're a part owner of the company, and especially if you were an early exec, you probably have a meaningful amount of equity. If someone else can help grow the value of your equity significantly faster than you can, that's a good thing for you.

If you are not a founder, you have <5% options (likely <1%) which are not preferred and if you are no longer with the company, they will be diluted with every funding round and restructuring. You will have no control over this. This is "no/bad equity".

Of course you're going to be diluted - that'll happen whether you're at the company or not. Obviously you'll get refresher grants if you stay, but in this case if you leave you can go somewhere else and get equity there, so you're not necessarily losing out (and in fact you're diversifying). If you think that dilution means that you have bad equity, you should never join an early stage startup in the first place. Dilution is going to happen, but it's not inherently a bad thing - your piece of the pie is getting smaller, but if it's because the company's growing very quickly, the value of your shares are going up. The percentage of equity you hold isn't what matters - the value is.

You are making some strong claims when this is very dependent on the exact scenario. My bet would be that you don't want to be replaceable because if you don't hold out to the IPO, the startup (and any new partnership they make) have every incentive to claw back as much money as possible. They could do this even if you stay but when you stay you need to be assertive enough to defend your position. I don't know how well everybody does at asserting their position from a technical role when you aren't in the room where the decision making happens. The only way I'd ever work at a startup with the goal of making a bunch of money based off of those shares is if I absolutely knew they couldn't and wouldn't fuck me over. I have no faith in any person in this world apart from very few. I would rather "grind" for the money i.e. work 8hr days and make it to my money goals quicker than 99% of the outcomes of choosing the startup path. That said, you can get good experience but the most important experience you get is knowing where you stand in any organization.

That's a fair point of view, but to your point, you're not going to work at a startup with the goal of making a bunch of money from shares, so you're probably not the target audience for this post.

I suppose you might think my comments off topic? I'd make a similar comment on a post titled "The Hardest Part of Investing in a Ponzi scheme or "The Hardest Part of buying a car to work for Uber" or "The Hardest Part of Selling for Amway". The statement itself is a deception, because the answer to the easy question for 99% is don't fucking do it.

If it is not RSUs - and just options, and you have 3 months to decide if to exercise your options with a bunch of $$, when co is years away from IPO... for most, it means walking away from the equity.

That's a situation that you should expect to end up in if you join an early stage startup - most people at the series A/B aren't there at the IPO. You can make the choice as to whether to take the risk, or you can seek out a company that will provide you the upfront cash needed to exercise in exchange for a significant portion of the upside if a liquidity event happens.

Does your equity grow when you leave the company or does it in fact shrink? This probably depends on the exact structure but I wonder what a survey of startups would say about how most startups behave.

If things go well, your percentage ownership shrinks but the value of your equity grows.

> If someone else can help grow the value of your equity significantly faster than you can, that's a good thing for you.

Only if you care more about money than professional growth.

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