The Universe Wants You To Be Typical

Vol. 1: Growing With a Startup

Growing With a Startup: operational yet personal lessons on building better organisations. Hit reply to tell me what resonates.

Hey everyone,

Welcome to the first edition of Growing With a Startup.

I distil 3 ideas on building better organisations each week, with lessons from my own work.

TLDR this week: tell potential hires how you're weird, make the second team member an engineer on all your teams, and watch out for strategic investors.


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Idea #1: The Universe Wants You To Be Typical

Jeff Bezo's passed on one last piece of advice in his last annual shareholder as CEO at Amazon:

Good strategies are distinctive, Good cultures are distinctive. But the universe pulls you towards being typical. Towards equilibrium with your surroundings.

Put in the effort to remain distinctive: new employees will question your culture's quirks, outsiders will question your risky bets.

Two tactics to avoid culture dilution:

  • Tell the world how you're different. Honesty attracts the right people, deters the wrong people. Jeff Bezo's said in his 1997 shareholder letter he wasn't aiming for short-term profits. At Aula, we have a public handbook. A simple solution: share a 1-pager on how you're distinctive alongside job offers so new-joiners know what they're signing up for.

  • Onboarding ritual. Threshold moments like onboarding lets you invite new-joiners to snap out of old patterns. At Aula, we have a virtue called Silly Ambition. I'm experimenting with asking new-joiners in their first week journal with me, answering: "Imagine that in 6 months your achievements at Aula make you think everything you did up until Aula is a footnote in comparison. What would that take?" Then bring those thoughts to their first one-on-one with their line manager to set the tone. It's an experiment for now - reply with good ideas for setting the tone for new-joiners.

Idea #2: Should your second salesperson be an engineer?

'Nail it before you scale it' is good advice for companies. Also for teams.

The knee-jerk reaction to traction is to hire. More logos, more customer success headcount.

Instead, invest the same resources in giving the first team member super powers: data and engineering support, virtual personal assistants, coaching, training. Then grow the team.

Over time, early team members accomplish more, earn more, and reduce risk of being caught in restructures.

At Aula, we have scars from dissolving entire teams where we've gotten this wrong. Never again.

My lesson: Finance at Aula shouldn't approve budget for team member #2 without budget for super powers.

Idea #3: 'Strategic investors' don't exist

This week, Aula received investment from a strategic investor. 'Strategic investors' are those that don't invest solely for financial purposes, e.g. if Amazon invests in a logistics company.

Strategic investors can bring networks and operational advice that financial investors cannot. We're excited.

However, Mark Suster flags risks for startups:

Strategic investors have different incentives:

  • they often care more about your product than your growth (if they're a user)

  • they care more about keeping your valuation LOW (if they want to be a buyer)

  • they care more about looking good internally than shareholder value

We've become comfortable with these trade-offs by speaking openly to our new investors about where we things might go wrong.