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Thrive is set up by Funding London, a venture capital company bridging the finance gap for early stage businesses based in London. With over a decade’s experience in supporting the startups of London through a variety of funding vehicles, Funding London sensed a need to illuminate the ever-evolving scenario of London’s early stage businesses.

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Perceptions · 1 April '19

Puppetry: How to avoid the accidental art of Founders manipulating teams

Hiring a team is bloody hard. Finding your first employee is even harder. So why is the conversation every Friday night from my ever growing number of friends now working in startups always on one subject? Puppetry.

“Puppetry is a form of theatre or performance that involves the manipulation of puppets — inanimate objects, often resembling some type of human or animal figure, that are animated or manipulated by a human called a puppeteer.”

It seems they’re all struggling with the same thing; that in a role which promised autonomy, it couldn’t be further from the truth.

And that’s because, as startup founders, we need to remember to keep our accidental narcissism in check. To avoid creating a bottle neck in a flat organisation, of dictating in a democracy; because startup life can already feel like one fat oxymoron. Let’s not make it worse.

These five suggestions are just that — suggestions — to help cut those strings, and prevent them from ever getting tied back up together.

1. Always hire someone better than you

The best talent out there will have done their homework. They’ll be savvy, switched on, and hopefully smarter than you.

They’ll have approached the taking-a-super-risky-job-and-hoping-it-pays-off decision with tactics, mimicking the mindset of an investor to avoid heart over head.

What are the team dynamics? Relationships between founders? Impressive recent growth over overall numbers? They’ll have thought about what the incredible highs might feel like, and what the real, shitty lows might do to them, too.

Let’s not underestimate the risk our teams have taken in joining us on our journey.

They deserve to feel like your business is their business too. Allow them the almost full experience, but protect them from the parts they just shouldn’t have to deal with. You put out the fires, then give them the resources to re-plant and grow.

They’re entrepreneurs, after all.

2. Get your pitch right

There’s a fine balance as a startup founder between the genuine belief of where your business is going, and bullshit. Mission vs vision. Goals vs growth.

Allow your team to see the bigger picture, and give them tools to help you all get there. If your business’ goal is to continue to fulfil your brand mission on another continent, be vocal about it. But be honest in what it’ll take for that to happen, and what their role might look like when it does.

There’s a difference between selling the dream and living the reality. Pitch right, be honest, and allow them to steer you in the right direction.

3. Don’t use ‘experience’ as a currency

It’s universally accepted that there’s a high possibility of earning less in a startup than you might in a big, ol’ corporate. That’s part of the risk vs reward process everyone goes through when joining a small business.

But at some point, this needs to change, as experience cannot be the only currency.

It’s all well and good being given more responsibility, but if your team do not feel valued, resentment will follow.

So harness the fact that salaries aren’t secrets any more. Plan for pay rises, and let them know that’s your intention too.

4. A healthy team makes a healthy business

We often talk about the need for founder wellness, but the same goes for our teams too.

Encourage people to take breaks, to take time out of their day and to exercise, read a book, go for a walk. Offer ‘mental health days’ or ‘duvet days’ so everyone has the chance to totally switch off and recharge, and not be afraid to say they need it.

There’s a difference between being agile, and jumping on every idea the CEO has just ‘because’. And there’s a difference between being lean, and taking on the job load of a whole army. Teams can experience burnout, too.

5. Vaccinate yourself against Founderitis

Your reactive way of working may have been crucial to your startup’s initial success, but it could become a hindrance to the company’s maturation.

Leave the ‘my way or the highway approach’ at the door, give yourself time to reflect, and most importantly, allow your team to make suggestions on the critical stuff.

Forget to grab a cure quick enough to get rid of Founderitis, you’ll be saying goodbye to your team, too.