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In the early startup days, life is a blur. You’re involved in everything. You’re doing everything. You’re building a product (that doesn’t really work). You’re talking to customers (who won’t quite buy). You’re courting new hires (who you can’t quite close). You’re pitching investors (who you can’t yet convince). And you’re talking to vendors (who you can’t at all afford). You’re also scheduling meetings, getting on flights, building presentations, and generally trying to be everywhere at once.
And now the employees really start rolling in. There are people upon people. Roles are increasingly specialized. The font size on the org chart shrinks at a terrific speed. And more and more, your conversations are with those who supervise work rather than with those who do work. Running the company involves dashboards and presentations. You’re no longer pushing buttons. Instead, you’re leading people who lead people who push buttons. Most importantly, the employees with whom you spend your days are veterans. They know their roles and have plenty of battle scars. To do their jobs well, they don’t need you to do anything. Or even supervise anything. They need your advice.
For a founder of an ascending company to succeed, they must advance at the same pace as their company. In the early days, the pursuit of product-market fit requires founders to engage directly. She/he often has to write code and then try to sell, close, and support new customers.
But as the machine builds momentum, a first shift needs to occur. The founder has to let go and let others write code, sell, close, and support. The longer a founder does this work directly, the slower the company will mature. But to take your hands off the wheel too early invites disaster, which is why direct management is then needed. Once this stage is reached, others are now doing the work, while the founder gets to witness the work and offer course corrections. Then as teams begin to expand, the ratio of managers to executors will stretch until layer upon layer is needed.
As a founder, you should be in tune with where you fit in relation to this Do, Manage, Coach framework. Across most startups, Stage is a useful indicator for gauging whether you’re following a healthy trajectory:
Seed Stage → founder is DOING the work and has to find evidence of PMF.
Series A/B → founder is MANAGING those charged with building a repeatable engine.
Series C+ → founder is COACHING leaders charged with building a scalable engine.
Stay Doing for too long, and the company won’t grow. Get stuck Managing, and the real scale won’t be reached. Move to Coach too early, and mistakes will reach existential proportions. It’s more art than science, and there’s a delicate balance to graduating from each phase of the maturity cycle. The difficulty in getting it right is one of the reasons why founders often don’t remain CEOs from start to finish.
How do you know if it’s time for a shift? Start simple — how is the company performing? Is everything humming? Are targets being set and achieved? Morale among your direct reports is high, and turnover is low. Then congratulations. But if there are gremlins in the machine, targets are being missed, and team rhythm is off, start by examining how you’re showing up. Are you doing the work for others when it’s time to let others step up? Or perhaps you’re using too light a touch with people who would benefit from more active management?
Do, Manage, Coach — a few minutes to understand, a lifetime to master.