Crew rowing boat

Energy in Startups

In Leadership, Entrepreneurship, Execution, Strategy Insights by Steve Sliwa

Find People Who Add Energy

When starting a new company, one of the most important things an entrepreneur can do is to find and add people who bring energy. Bert Sutherland, who was a board member at my drone company, Insitu, first pointed this out to me. Bert had previously been the manager of the Systems Science Laboratory at Xerox PARC, a venture capitalist, and one of the true founders of the internet when he worked on ARPAnet with Bolt Beranek and Newman Inc., now BBN Technologies. 

Sutherland’s observation crystalized with me because as I looked around, it was obvious that some people in their interactions with others add energy. Others take it away. They are the naysayers, always starting with no – in other words, the grumpy butts. It is frustrating because it drains the energy of those around them. 

When launching a company and in the early days, find those who contribute energy and empower them to add more. An analogy is a crew boat. A leader wants people rowing hard, in sync, and moving together rather than over-steering and telling people to stop and head in a different direction. Being able to gently steer that high-performance crew boat is valuable and important. 

Applying Stress to Organizations for Energy

When something goes wrong in an organization, one of the tactics I use is to form a team to get to the bottom of it. I call these tiger teams. For example, at Insitu, if we lost a couple of engines in a row, we formed a tiger team to work on it. At the software company Seeq, if we have problems reaching a performance milestone, we pull together a multi-disciplinary tiger team that conducts a 15-minute daily standup to report the progress. Then, everyone goes off and works on it.

For broader issues that require more resources, such as the entire company working on an initiative, then I call it a ‘march.’ I modeled this after Microsoft. When they were about to release a major upgrade, they called it a death march, which could last for months with pulling together features, debugging, testing, and fixing issues.

At Insitu, we called our first march the MEF March – where MEF stood for Marine Expeditionary Forces. The company did a three-and-a-half-month push. But before making the decision, the entire 150-person company gathered to decide if we should do it. Even though it meant long hours with hard effort, everyone said yes. When we finished, we had a picnic for employees and their families because everyone sacrificed and contributed to the march  – families saw less of their loved ones who were working overtime. The crucial part is that when leaders are clawing for this extra energy, they must remember to celebrate, recover, and recharge the batteries in order to look for new opportunities.

Tell-Tale Sign: Trying Too Hard to Be Right

When looking at people to add to your startup, decide if they add energy or not. I notice that some people who take energy out of an organization are merely trying too hard to be right. When I coach people, I often say…

“If you ever find yourself arguing harder and harder trying to be right, then you are probably taking energy out of the room.”

Find a way to add energy to every conversation, interaction, coaching opportunity, and collegial situation. There will always be time to steer it later.

It is critical for startups to add energy and avoid trying to be right. Because they are attempting to disrupt the space of larger companies, they need every advantage they can get.

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