Want to be more Productive? Here's What to Avoid - especially in the Start-up World

Hilal Koc

Problem solver & Start-up advisor // Partner Development @ LinkedIn

Lately I’ve observed that productivity is considered in the same vein as self-improvement, with the emphasis on what one can achieve in isolation of all other factors. It’s almost as if being productive can arm you for your solo battle against the world. While I have certainly benefited from productivity tips, sometimes I feel that it’s a bit like saying you should build up your immunity to the junk food in your kitchen instead of replacing them with healthier alternatives. Many habit and addiction experts agree that a vital component of changing your individual behavior is setting yourself up in an environment that supports your new lifestyle. So if we think about productivity as a long-term work-lifestyle, outside of our own efforts, environment & coworker chemistry matter. Relationships matter.

We all know this intuitively of course and see it in practice - yet we often put minimal effort towards identifying the right environment to perpetuate productivity. Often times we are rushing to find a job or trying to capitalize on a new opportunity before thinking it through. It can be particularly detrimental when the company you’re looking to join is small, where options to change your environment, industry and colleagues are minimal, if not non-existent. Start-ups are a great example. Over the years, I’ve invested, advised and worked in start-ups that have taught me many lessons, many the hard way :) The main keys to success remain deceivingly basic: (1) the size of market the company/product is addressing (this encompasses the problem/issue it is looking to solve or new industry it is looking to create), (2) the founding team, and (3) the ability to differentiate or perpetuate competitive advantage. The second factor, though, is where long-term productivity and professional happiness lies, and it is still often addressed as an after-thought.

Just how important is it to consider the team? If you’re looking to join a start-up in the early phases, I’d like to share some of my findings that will help you increase your personal and team’s long-term productivity, and increase your success in the quest for coworker chemistry. Here are some founder personality traits to avoid:

1) The Go-It-Aloner: Not developing a senior team quickly (a full-time C-level or VP-level team, not outside advisors) is a red flag. There are many questions that arise in my mind when a founder chooses this strategy, all of them troubling: Are they so self-centered or naive that they actually think they can do it alone? Are they unable to convince people to work with them? Are they unable to get along with people? Are they thinking of this product/company as a short-term gig? I am not suggesting that every start-up needs to begin as a huge team. However, as you look to scale and get investment, the lack of a team is truly concerning. Bringing on senior team members late in the game also does not set them up for success – the more junior members of the team are used to one authority figure and breaking that dysfunctional work flow can be difficult and time-intensive.

2) The Double-Dealer: All staff should know a company’s basic financials, major business decisions, strategies and the ownership structure (aka cap table). If the founder does not share this with you and the broader team, there is often a reason for the sneakiness…. and it’s not good. Transparency and trust are incredibly valuable to the success and productivity of a start-up team. And it all starts with the founder/founding team.

3) The Stock-Scrimper: If the founder/founding team does not offer a share of the company to the founding members or early employees (in the form of stock or stock options), there is a fundamental lack of alignment. Not understanding the value of engaging employees in the risk/reward of a company early on leads me to believe they won’t value or understand customers or future investors either.

4) The Over-Delegator: Knowing how to delegate effectively is incredibly valuable. However, not digging in when things don’t go as planned is unfortunately extremely common. This is where action speaks louder than words – if the founder says they are “ready” to roll-up the sleeves but you’ve never heard of or seen them ever doing so… stay away.

5) The Waiter-Hater: You’ve heard it before - the way a person treats “the help” is an important insight into how they perceive themselves and others. It is an indicator of how the founder will react when the going gets tough (and let’s be honest, in start-ups, it often does :)). In the work context, it’s valuable to observe the way a founder deals with family members, loved ones, friends… and yes, the “help” such as blue collar workers or cleaning staff.

6) The Indecisive: This one is pretty clear – founders who struggle to come to a decision or change their mind frequently are another red flag. The ability to pivot and remain flexible is an important and valuable differentiator. But when the founder wastes 2 days of a designer or coder’s time trying to decide on the font or the background color of a webpage, you know you’re in trouble.

7) The Ambivalent: Not developing a company culture, or not articulating what a company’s values and ethos will be is concerning but actually common. I can sense this instantanty the moment I walk into a company’s office/room. The tell-tale signs: bare walls, lack of energy, lack of unifying messages or themes. To clarify, there is no expectation that a start-up establish everything up front – bootstrapping certainly prevents one from many things, including lavish decoration (as it should!). But I’m referring to the simple things – even in a room with two developers, you can identify a unifying factor – whether it’s the beverages they prefer, the daily rituals, or music in the background. As a company develops, the founder is responsible for developing an all-hands meeting or get-together, an on-boarding ritual (even a simple introductory tour around the office!) to create team spirit, energy and a source of purpose. If the founder outsources this, or is ambivalent to its value, I am truly concerned with the longevity of the company. From personal experience, I cannot stress the value of this enough.

8) The Just-Bigger: When asked what the future is, if the founder just focuses on getting “bigger” – more revenue, more profit, it can be a major red flag. It demonstrates the lack of a broader vision and direction – what is the company trying to solve? How will it create an ecosystem? What are some of the challenges and opportunities ahead? Bigger is not the only solution, in fact, it may not even be a solution.

The list above is not exhaustive (and intentionally doesn't hit the magic #10!), but when considering joining a start-up, I recommend you consider the factors above. Because while increasing your own productivity is incrementally valuable, it can only take you so far. Your environment and colleagues have to support your efforts to truly enable long-term productivity and success. So as you make your way down the path to Silicon Valley-unicorn-like success, keep in mind the basics: relationships matter, and productivity is enhanced by our environment and colleagues.

Oh, and if all else fails, do as Richard Branson says: Want to Be More Productive? Be More Punctual!

This post was inspired by the #productivityhacks series on LinkedIn
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About hakim punya

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