People love money and titles.
Pay little money, and people will want a big title to justify it. Think of all of the Directors and Founders of young nonprofits, political action groups, and think tanks based in DC.
Set people at a more junior title, and people will want lots of money to justify it. If you have anyone stepping down from VP to Director, you’ll be sure that they’ll only do it because they’re either getting paid a lot more or they’re expecting it very shortly.
Over time, everyone wants these to grow. People feel stuck when their paycheck hasn’t grown or when they’ve been in the same role for too long.
People at startups set a bit higher of a bar for themselves. They join for the prospect of a fast-growing organization in which they can get in early and grow quickly as the company hires many folks under them. Titles matter a lot more.
A growing startup is one of the only places where it’s really, really important to set aside personal ambitions in favor of focusing on growing the business in the right way.
Specifically, focus on growing revenue.
Nothing matters if the company doesn’t take off
If the company goes bankrupt, your title won’t matter.
If the company middles along before fading into the background, your title won’t matter.
All else equal, if the company doesn’t do well, you don’t do well. So in order to increase the odds that you do well, you have to increase the odds that the company does well.
In many cases, no matter how hard you try, the company will not do well. That is part of the risk that you take by joining a startup. It also means that you may put some degree of career progression on hold if the company fails, and you should be comfortable with that risk as well.
But we can’t predict the future. The most we can do is try our best to make the company successful.
Revenue always matters
A business is made up of two parts: revenue and costs.
In a VC-backed startup, by taking venture funding, your founders have already acknowledged that figuring out the cost side of the business doesn’t matter as much as the revenue side.
In fact, there are only two situations where cutting costs matters:
- When you’re trying to improve the economics of each customer before setting out or as you set out to acquire many more customers.
- When the business needs to become profitable, for one reason or another
By comparison, revenue always matters. You will always be on the hunt for more revenue, without exception.
Titles and people structure never stay the same
In a growing startup, never assume that growing the company’s headcount will only come in the form of building on top of the current org chart.
Today, there may be 30 people at the company. But in the long run, there will be hundreds, even thousands (hopefully!) more. They will need places on the org chart.
You’ll come up with new teams that used to be one person’s job. You’ll split out sub-teams that need to be delineated as you scale. You’ll consolidate functions that don’t need to exist anymore.
Things will change. Don’t try to predict it or, even worse, try to make moves based on your predictions.
If you help the business, the business will help you
Instead, focus on doing good work that proves to be helpful for the company.
If you’re a salesperson that brings in $2M of new revenue when the company has only ever had $500K to-date, you’re going to stay. You’re also going to be asked to figure out how to find more people like you.
If you build a product that breaks the company into new territory, with millions of new revenue potential and ravenous new customers, you’re going to be asked to find ways to augment this success.
Results matter. What doesn’t matter is what your title is and how the teams are carved out - because again, those things will change anyways.
Don’t let big company tendencies creep into your small startup life. These are two different games.