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Startup Skill Set #6: The Startup Manager

Startups are often founded by engineers, designers, and other "doers". Often, they have spent most, or even all of their career working with incompetent managers who were over-controlling or over-lax, ignorant or too technical, domineering or distant, micro-managing or not paying any attention to the project, etc. Bad managers abound and they have rightly earned themselves a poor reputation in the technology world.

The result of that is often that startup founders feel that no management is needed, or indeed desired, and that the startup should go ahead without any management whatsoever for as long as possible... "until there are too many people" is a common milestone to start thinking about management.

However, that is not only a mistake, but quite simply a misunderstanding of what management is, what it's meant to look like in a small, expert team, how it adapts to different contexts, and so on.

What is management, anyway?

The effect of all these bad managers is that people end up assuming that "management" means having a boss who tells you what to do and stops you from doing the right thing. They are naturally irritated at such nonsense and avoid reproducing it in their own company.

There are as many definitions of management as there are people thinking about management, but rather than create my own, I'll pick one of the existing ones and use that. This one is quite good:

Management is the creative and systematic pursuit of practical results, (including the result of more knowledge), by identifying and using available human and knowledge resources in a concerted and reinforcing way.

Management is not about having a boss, it's about creating a system to enable you to pursue whatever results you intend to achieve in a more effective way. That seems universally desirable, but even with this definition, many will chafe. "There's only two of us, we don't need management, we just need to get things done". Again, this comes from a misunderstanding of the way management should be applied.

One of the most important things I learned about management in my time in Accenture was the idea that management processes should always be tailored to the situation at hand, that there was no dogmatic, "perfect" management methodology that was "right" in all cases, that each situation required its own unique management processes. Accenture had a vast library of management processes, which at the time they called the "Accenture Delivery Methods", and an important part of the role of the project manager was to be aware of ADM and select which bits to apply to their project, which bits to change, and which bits to ignore completely.

Good management is like water. It flows around the situation, adapts to it, and fills the gaps exactly to enable a more efficient "pursuit of practical results".

Asking the right questions

In a small startup team context, being a manager means asking the right question. Do we need a process to keep track of bugs? Do we need a process to plan out in what order to build out the features? It means being aware that you need to figure out what those questions are, raise them appropriately with your team (even if that's just two of you), find solutions to them and put them in place.

Being a manager also means having some awareness of the possible solution-space. Most engineers will be aware of kanban boards and bug tracking tools, but how many know about retrospective meetings, five-whys analysis, functional point estimation, critical path analysis, etc? Being aware is not even enough. A lot of management tools are such that they can be hard to put into action until you've seen someone else do it. If you've never had a good manager, being a good manager yourself is pretty damn hard.

One of the observations I've made from a year and a half of running GrantTree, and looking into our clients' businesses, is the difference between those who are great at execution and those who are not. Great executers seem to have a deliberate energy, like a tidal wave pushing everything in the same direction at once. One of the skills that they almost always seem to possess is management. They address process problems quickly and skillfully. The result is a company that (once it's achieved product-market fit) grows fast, effectively, inexorably, with few major mis-steps. Even in a two-people team, they identify and resolve management issues quickly and effectively.

Another thing worth noting is that the Lean methodology, very popular lately with (almost) everyone in the entrepreneurial world, is all about management. Eric Ries explicitly defines entrepreneurship as a management science, and rightly so. There's management in finding the ways to achieve product-market fit, there's management in getting the right features built to get those initial sales, there's management in getting the sales, and there's management in growing the business once there is a business to speak of.

Management is certainly not the only skill required for entrepreneurs, but it is essential, and one of the hardest to learn.

What you can do

If you're still working in the corporate world, you have a chance to observe good and bad managers at work. Unfortunately, unless you know the difference, you won't be able to see what they do that's good or bad. My recommendation to "learn" management is to do two things. First, pick up some good books on management and read them. Here are a couple to get you started: Behind closed doors, Manage it!.

Then, open your eyes and look around. No doubt there are good manager operating in your company. Find them, and observe them. See what they do that bad managers don't, and, even more importantly, what they don't do, that bad managers do. If you can move to work closer to a good manager, do so, and show interest and support in what they do. Most good managers that I met in my time in Accenture were happy to offer advice and mentorship. You can learn a lot from great managers by simply showing interest and asking questions.

If you've already hit the eject button and jumped into the startup world, the task is much harder. The reading list above is still worthwhile, but you'll have to learn management without seeing it in action first, which is a bit like learning horse-riding from a book. It can be done, but you can expect a few falls. What you can do, however, is compensate for this gap in your skill set by being aware of it and seeking out advice from more experienced people on management issues. If you have friends who are competent managers in or out of the startup world, or mentors who have built successful businesses before (most of them will have developed management skills along the way), then make sure you ask for their advice on management issues, rather than plodding on blindly.

If you do get advice from manager friends, be aware of the context of their management experience, and take anything they say with a grain of salt. Unless their experience is in an entrepreneurial context, they may give you advice that's complete overkill for your context. It's also possible that, despite being your friends, they are bad managers. You can't abdicate responsibility for deciding which processes to apply and which to ignore (but you can always give their suggestions a temporary try).

The most important change, perhaps, is to simply be aware of all this. You do need management in your startup, it doesn't mean putting lots of restrictive processes in place or having a boss, and it's worth spending time and talking to people to learn to manage properly.

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