BeehiveStartups: How To Bring Order To Your Startup Without Strangling It By Dan Caffee

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Success can sometimes blind you to the obvious — and actually hurt your company. Since we launched in 2005, we’ve been named Best Company To Work For (a regional award based on employee nominations) three times. During that time, we’ve grown from one to $20-plus million in revenue.

What could be wrong?

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Process

First up, I really hated process. I thought it was just a lot of red tape, and would keep us from being nimble and fast moving as a company. If we interviewed someone and they felt like a good fit, my instinct and action was to just do it; make the hire! Let’s approve them because they’re awesome! Good idea, right?

Until it wasn’t.

For example, without a clear protocol for how to select and approve service contracts, our disparate teams didn’t feel the need to communicate with others before approving new deals. We ended up in some cases with different departments signing competing contracts.

Before we knew it, we had 4-5 contracts in place that provided essentially the same services, all because we’d worked so hard to avoid becoming “too corporate.”

Ultimately, trusted employees were telling me that my ad hoc style felt arbitrary, and made people uneasy. They wanted more explanation for my decisions, more clarity. Without clear process, it was hard for my team to feel confident about getting things done.

Worst of all, in trying to create a completely non-political organization I had let the company become highly politically charged. Those who were less politically savvy were left in the dust, wriggling and resentful.

Progress by Inches

So I realized some procedure is key– you fester without it. For example, when we wanted to bring in someone new, we decided to take a step back and insist on a process. Instead basing the decision on my off-the-cuff yes or no, I asked managers to come up with a proposal. As a result, managers were forced to be clear about job descriptions and business goals tied to the job. Suddenly, everyone involved in the process of approving a hire had to play a role. The additional steps could be a real pain, but they gave people a pretty good idea of whether their requests would be met.

The clarity was helpful to the new hires as well, giving them useful direction and a set of expectations for the role.

Limits are Helpful

In a similar vein, the boss who says “yes” to everything is not a hero–so I learned. Employees are empowered by limits. The existence of boundaries gives them parameters to operate within while stretching their creativity genes.

For example, we place a high priority on team activities. But a leader’s ideas aren’t always in sync with what employees enjoy or value most. For team members, the chance to have a stake in the decisions and planning is absolutely critical, and sometimes fun. So we gave every team the same amount of budget per person to work with. We set guidelines on how much could be saved to carry over, and of course safety and other HR restrictions apply. But then, we just set them loose to make their own choices.

Clear Definitions are Cool

As a leader, I’ve progressively learned to give my employees the benefit of clear definitions.

In another case we interviewed a candidate the executive team thought was great. Culturally, he’d be a great fit. He aced the tests, and he was eager to learn. But in this case we recognized the test was actually on us as to whether we’d follow through with our process or just hurry up and finish the hire. Even though every hunch suggested he’d be spectacular, I stuck to my guns. We waited to create a clear definition of the role before making the hire. We wanted to provide him – as well as ourselves- with a clear picture of his expectations and opportunities that came with the job. After we thought it through thoroughly and adhered to the steps, he was hired. But because we had honored the process, we felt much more confident about the choice to bring him aboard. (Sure enough, he proved to be a company rock star.)

I learned you can stick to the process and still be flexible. If the issue is on the table at the outset, you have a chance to rethink and revise the position, as well as your expectations about particular employees. By having a different and better conversation at the start, you can avoid setting someone up for failure.

Process, procedures and policies still give me pause as a founder-entrepreneur. But they’re no longer bad words in our business since I’ve realized how much thoughtful rules can help.

Dan Caffee
Dan Caffee is co-founder and CEO of online marketing company Neutron Interactive in Salt Lake City

About Neutron

Neutron Interactive is a lead generation company based in Salt Lake City, Utah. The company's innovative solutions have been used across a wide range of industries, including recruiting, insurance, interactive media, and education. Neutron's success has earned the company recognition on the Inc. 500 in 2010 and 2011.

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