I have the benefit of seeing lots of startups pitch their teams and watching many seed-funded companies establish their early org structures. I’ve found that there are certain types of orgs and titles that I have a naturally visceral reaction towards. For example:
- Having any more “C’s” than the CEO and CTO
- Seeing a head of product that isn’t a founder
- Seeing VPs (the more I see, the worse I feel)
Here are some guiding principles that I think explain why I’m averse to these in most cases.
1. You need DO-ers in startups. You are either building or selling, and if someone isn’t doing one of those two, it’s hard to justify having that person on board. It’s actually pretty extraordinary to find a truly VP level or higher person who is actually a do-er. Most of the time, one becomes a VP because they’ve excelled and have progressed to the point where they are leading a team. Their functional skills are a little dated, their mentality is a bit different, and they are just a little (or a lot) less scrappy. Seed and early stage companies are in need of people who like hand-to-hand combat. There will be a time and place for more senior people, but you want to bring them in when they have the chance to be as effective as their seniority would suggest.
2. You need to create room for exceptions and growth. The problem with having an army of VPs and CXO’s is that it eliminates room to really distinguish extraordinary talent. This is when you start seeing titles like “EVP or SVP”, which again is pretty meaningless and frightening. If you do want to bring in someone much more senior, usually that person is an outlier. Make the outlier role the VP role, not something else weird. I noticed this to be true at many extraordinary companies. I remember looking at the early org at Twitter (even when there were dozens of people) and there was maybe one or two VP’s. Most of the leaders of their divisions (product, business development, etc) were directors and stayed that way. I also am biased because even at Ebay, when it was a public company, VP’s were pretty few and far between. Being a Director meant you were directing something significant. I think that’s appropriate.
3. Some may object to my first two points and say “I can’t recruit people because they won’t take a lateral role or anything less than a VP title.”. My answer to that is – you don’t want those people. Early stage companies need to be free of politics and that kind of ego. Everyone talks about wanting a flat culture. But I find that title focused people don’t really want flat, they just want to be as close to the top as possible. Earlier today, I stumbled upon the team page of a seed funded startup in Boston, and saw 7 VP-level and higher people NOT including the CEO. That’s so not-flat, I guess it’s almost flat!
4. Even better than my suggestions above, how about not even having titles at all? Just describe people based on their areas of focus and responsibility. It’s impractical for a large company, but not for a small company. Check out the team at ThredUp. Aside from the CEO and CTO, you see almost no other titles, just descriptors of what people actually do.
5. I’ll get in trouble with some of my friends on this, but I also think that the best companies are founded by product-oriented founders. As a result, I almost always second-guess a team when there is a senior “Head of Product” that is NOT one of the founders. Usually, I’d hope that the head of product is actually the CEO or CTO, at least at the seed stage. You just can’t punt on product decisions at the earliest stages of the company – the founders need to be able to make the calls. Also, external heads of product are often not folks who are great product designers, but are more librarians than poets. Seed stage products need to be inspired by poets, and you can hire librarians later to build a scaleable product process.