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Squeezing the lemon

Running a company with bloody high fix costs and zero positive cash flow (yet) is super demanding. At times frustrating. Not exactly relaxing. Even with the occasional cash injection, the struggle is permanent and adds to the existing pressure in a way that might be best described by watching one of those videos on youtube in which this swedish guy squishes stuff with his hydraulic press … It hurts. It's the stuff that keeps you up at night. Everything depends on that magical time to market to turn things around. And if the technical challenges aren't enough, you have to take care of financial and management issues, too.

But here's the deal: I think that in the long run, it helps build a solid understanding for everyone involved what it means to make humble decisions in all things money related. Like: No, we can't afford office desks from designer brand XY - there's plenty of other ways to get 10 desks for $1000. Also, let's just scale our cloud stuff for the current situation and demands, shall we? It basically impregnates the idea of efficient spending and efficient working at the very core and into everybody's mind in a very painful way. Maslow would be proud. Of course, this involves that your people are in the loop. Don't create illusions. Share the success stories but also the very real struggles. I know for a fact that some do not agree with this. But the only way to make things work is when everybody is on the same page. From my experience, what bonds you as team most is overcoming impossible odds. More so than any award or compliment.

I've had the chance to get to know a few start-ups in the hardware and software business that are much, much more well financed than we are. They were either able to bring more funds to the table themselves or they had huge Angel investments. But to have money doesn't necessarily mean that their product is going to be better, nor that they will develop better as a company. A lot of the products I came across don't really tickle my interest that much and feel more like me-too stuff than anything really disruptive. The disruptive aspect is more in the slide deck than the product itself.

Of course, we all want to dive into the Google Ballpit or have a fun meeting in a Super Mario themed meeting room, drinking artisanally brewed macha tea from a small coop in Guatemala.. But really, if you run a company that has time and money to think about stuff like that, makes it a priority and actually has staff dedicated to it, you'd better come up with a new product idea and keep people busy with that. Instead of fulfilling each 1990's internet company bubble cliche available. To me that's a company with way too much time and money on its hands and doesn't really care about going forward but dedicates a shitload of resources to decorating the nest and masturbate while watching its success. So, basically, it entered the corporate realm and is on its way to join all the dinosaurs. There's a reason garage companies are much more efficient and productive. But there's also a reason they develop and a flatline heartbeat in innovation and creativity as soon as they reach a certain size.
I don't have anything against perks, au contraire, I spend a lot of time working from home and enjoy that very much, for example. I can focus better and can relax better when I need it.

I'd rather offer my team a yearly one week trip to an exotic location to forget about all the daily business and connect with eachother on a more personal level. Or internal courses and talks and things like that. Whatever they think makes sense. Not what improves the company value. Not what the people detached from that very base think. All the materialistic stuff is just a bait for potential hires. I don't think anybody gives a shit wether you have playstations in the office or not if they're completely honest.

And yeah, this is probably really just about hiring people. After all, we all get attracted more to a work place that looks like a freakin' pre-school playhouse than a chaotic lab with stained coffee mugs. Seeing those well funded playgrounds might leave you with a bit of a jealousy if you have to cut so many corners to keep your own ship over the water.

However, I'm probably a pretty bad example: most companies I worked for in the past have never had such ambitions and the real value was always more on the personal side of things. The concessions we made.. I can think of a lot of people that would never accept that.

For the most part, I think that a lot of tech start-ups are spoiled brats. And it's easy to come up with things that should be nicer and better at the place you work. But that has nothing to do with the vibe in the offices or the quality of the products. All of that depends on each individual working there. If that happens for the wrong reasons or with the wrong attitude, you can have dozens of gum machines in each corner of the office: it won't change anything about the fact that everybody needs to work, hard, on a common goal.

The reason why I spent a lot of time thinking about that: there's not enough qualified candidates around to fill our roster. That's the same thing for basically every company looking for software and system engineers. And therefore, companies spend a lot of time and effort coming up with ways that, in their opinion, makes them more interesting for the candidates available. Which is depressing because it automatically means that if you are in a position where offering all that stuff is simply not possible due to monetary and workload constraints, it makes you look like you don't give a damn about company culture.

This is entirely unfair. The large fancy tech giants make superficial promises which is much more attractive on the first glimpse. But once you're actually there, the job needs to get done anyways and it doesn't matter much if there's an in-house Starbucks or a person hired to make PB&J sandwiches for everyone. And if they screen your output and its beyond their expectations, it's suddenly no longer cozy either way.

So you're stuck between a rock and a hard place: small team, huge project, long hours, massive pressure, tight budgets. Long hours and pressure affect motivation, in order to get rid of that and make it more bearable for everyone, you need to scale. But you can't scale that fast because even hiring people itself takes a lot of time, since you aren't in the position to hire someone specifically as a HR person yet because the budget is tight. This puts even more work on the table for a few people that are already at a 120%. And the circle continues.

So yeah, those are the questions and dilemmas that keep you up at night. Not even going into technical details yet. That's the cherry on top.

One of the agreements that we can reach at this point is that it's entirely understandable if someone simply drops the mic and walks away from managing such a thing. But at the end of the day, you made it that far and as long as the chances are still on the table, you continue to push forward.

I just hope that all the fancy, well funded projects appreciate their options and the position they're in. It could be very different. And it can change very quickly. Especially if you lose track of what actually matters.