PlaybookChapter 2

The Self-Starter Fallacy

Startups love to hire smart, independent people and let them figure things out. But even the most driven self-starters can't work in the dark.

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For most startups, people strategy goes something like this:

  1. Hire smart, entrepreneurial people.
  2. ???
  3. Profit.

Hire self-starters, the saying goes, and you can focus on the product without bogging down your team in red tape. So why do 15% of new hires leave in the first 3 months? And why do half of them cite lack of process as the biggest factor in their departure?

Self-Starters Aren’t Superhuman

Michael Phelps is a world-class swimmer with double the average lung capacity. While training for the Olympics, he swam 50 miles a week. But he wouldn’t survive being tossed overboard into the middle of the Atlantic ocean with no lifejacket.

Even the smartest, most driven people have a limit to what they can accomplish with minimal support. Without enough organizational context, they’ll make bad decisions based on incomplete information. And without a clear understanding of the company’s goals and how their work fits into the bigger picture, they can waste hours—or days—working on the wrong things.

Teams Are Built, Not Hired

Even when a startup manages to hire a team full of self-starters, there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to work together. A team of winners isn’t the same as a winning team, and the kind of independent spirits that can thrive with no support aren’t always team players.

At the core, your company is a lot like a typical high school: it’s a large group of strangers with one thing in common. Left to their own devices, people end up breaking into cliques with different languages and ways of doing things. And when no one’s working from the same script, the product suffers, and people get frustrated and leave.

You Can’t Make Up Everything from Scratch

Joe Dunn, a 20-year industry veteran and coach who’s worked with executives at Airbnb, Pinterest, and LinkedIn, cautions against the natural impulse to reinvent the wheel. He warns that often, founders gravitate to the idea that “this company is the most special company ever, so we’ll make up everything from scratch.”

“Founders are often very smart people who are accustomed to being right. And they start something that’s outside their expertise, like culture or how to hire, and they think they can work it out from first principles. You can have a company of 20 superstars. It’s very hard to have a company of 100.” — Joe Dunn, Executive Coach

It’s tempting to think you can figure everything out with enough time and your own expertise. But learning how to scale your team through trial and error when you also need to run your business is a big ask, even for the smartest leaders.


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