Startup Team Symmetry
Symmetry is a beautiful thing. Things that are symmetrical exist in perfect harmony. Each part is proportional, equal and inseparable. No part is greater or better than the other parts. Such perfect balance exists in nature, but is difficult to replicate within man-made organizations led by ego-driven human beings with a need for power and control. This is one reason why upstarts can topple the mightiest of companies.
Some of the best companies were started and built as a result of good team symmetry: Annheuser – Busch, Hewlett – Packard, Microsoft (Gates – Allen), Apple (Jobs – Wozniak), Google (Page – Brin), Mattel (Matson – Handler)…and the list goes on. In most cases, team symmetry was probably a fortuitous accident at the start, but building and succeeding was more likely by design. A startup’s first key hires will likely make or break a company: Microsoft (Ballmer), Apple (Markkula), Amazon (Kaphan), Google (Silverstein), Uber (Graves)…and the list goes on.
What does ideal startup team symmetry look like?
Not many studies have been done on startup team development. I am certainly not an organizational expert, but in my humble view, ideal startup team symmetry is a hexagon – it has six sides. Like a honeycomb, it has the smallest total perimeter. It has no gaps. It wastes no time or energy, and it produces the maximum amount of “honey.” A company may start with one founder (circle), two founders (semi-circle), or three founders (triangle), but it must eventually evolve into a six-sided symmetrical entity in order to maximize its chances for survival and success.
We can argue about what titles to give each side. Titles are not all that important, but defined roles and responsibilities are essential to startup success. I will argue the six essential roles are vision/leadership, finance, product (tech),operations, marketing, and sales.
Most startups try to lump finance and operations together into one role. They almost always try to lump marketing and sales together into one role. This is a mistake in my view. That structure creates a four-sided organization…a square. Squares are symmetrical and easier to create. Some may argue they are even more efficient than hexagons. The problem with squares is that they tend to become rectangles, with two sides becoming longer (more important) than the other two sides. This is how empire-building and team dysfunction happen.
I tend to think the bees figured it out and offer the best model for startup organizations. I think the ideal startup is a hexagon and fulfills six equally-important roles:
Chief Executive Officer (CEO) – you are the keeper of the vision and creator of the culture. You can clearly articulate the big vision and what it will take to achieve it. You are the leader, the face and voice of the company. You are in charge of everything and you hold yourself and everyone else accountable. You keep everyone aligned and moving towards the same vision. You attract and incentivize the leaders of the other five sides of the honeycomb. You prevent empire-building and team dysfunction. You attract the investors, key partnerships and other external resources needed to grow and succeed. You have the courage to make the tough decisions; change direction and people if it’s necessary for survival or growth. You never let the company get off mission or lose the will to fight.
Chief Financial Officer (CFO) – you are the keeper of the honey, where it is coming from and where it is going. You make sure that not even an ounce is wasted. You know the company revenue model better than the back of your hand. You institute good financial systems and controls. You make the other five sides of the honeycomb justify and defend their budgets. You regulate inventories and anticipate future financial needs. You take corrective action the instant things don’t look right…the minute the company is off plan. You have creative ways of stretching a dollar and extracting the best terms from vendors. You make sure the CEO and other four C’s know exactly where the company stands at all times.
Chief Technology (or Product) Officer (CTO) – you are the master of the magic, the reason the company exists. You work closely with the CMO and CSO to stay on top of customer requirements and expectations. You are ruthless about the product development and release schedule. You avoid feature creep and insist that what ships “just works” and scales across the entire platform. You are a student of UX/UI design, product management and quality assurance. You embrace and appreciate their roles in the product development process. You use the product every day and continually test it against competitive products. You understand everything about how every product in the category works.
Chief Operating Officer (COO) – you are an organizational and logistical genius. You are the consummate “inside” guy or gal; “Execution” is your middle name. You keep all the moving pieces operating like a fine Swiss watch: the facilities, the equipment and tools, HR and team support systems. The other five C’s are your customers. You see to it that they have everything they need to do their jobs. You are often a mentor/coach/confidant to the other C’s and key hires. You are the CEO when the CEO is away from the office. You execute strategies, you are the change agent when change is needed, and you are an exceptional communicator both up and down within the organization.
Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) – you are the channeler and the voice of the customer. You know the customer better than they know themselves. You live with them, understand their wants, needs, fears, habits and motivations. You know exactly how your company’s products appeal to them. You know what they read, watch and listen to – who and what influences their decisions. You reach them there and tease them; entice them to consider your company’s products. You are a master story-teller. Customers and influencers fall in love with your company and products because the stories that you craft around them are so engaging. The CSO is your biggest fan because you make his or her job so easy.
Chief Sales (or Revenue) Officer (CSO) – you are a natural born closer. You live for the deal. You are the engine of the company. No engine, i.e., sales and revenue, no company. You love this pressure, it drives you. You understand marketing – probably held the title Director or VP of Sales & Marketing before, but you know there are important differences between these two roles. You would prefer to let marketing create prospects for your product, while you focus on turning those prospects into long-term satisfied customers. You believe your best source of revenue are existing customers, so you focus as much on enhancing those relationships as you do on establishing new ones.
Naturally, each of these leaders should know how to hire their teams, build out and manage the part of the organization they are responsible for. In summary, the quicker you evolve beyond the simple symmetry of yourself and/or your co-founder(s) to a stronger and more efficient symmetrical structure, the better your chances of survival and success!