Business Management

Is Your Tech or Media Firm Organized Like the St. Louis Rams?

Marc_BaskinThursday night, over 25 million Americans will tune into the first professional football game that matters, after 212 days of hibernation, as the 95th NFL season commences at the home of the reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. It is a rematch of one of the most talked about games of the previous season, now known as the Fail Mary game. While both the Seahawks and Packers have championship contending rosters, elsewhere in the league, many teams have serious holes, making them questionable for a winning record. Most of these issues surround the most visible, if not most important, position on the field—the starting quarterback. In Cleveland, it is hometown Brian Hoyer vs. the Heisman winning wunderkind Johnny Manziel; in Houston, a star receiver doesn’t want to play his remaining years with an inexperienced rock thrower; and the historically hapless Jets are wondering if Geno Smith is the quarterback of the future.

But the QB storyline that has me most intrigued is that of Sam Bradford of the St. Louis Rams. It is one that interests me because it reminds me of the risk that many rising technology and media companies put themselves in every day. Like the Rams who inexplicably did not have a viable backup plan, many startups and high-growth firms do not look ahead to ensure minimal disruption, should the worst occur. I realize that unless your company employs Terry Tate, the risk of losing your star engineer or creative to injury is unlikely. But do you have a plan should they take their talents elsewhere?

Four years ago, I was working with a NJ technology firm (I’ll call ‘ABC Tech’) as a financial and operations consultant. On a positive note, they had much in their favor: a niche software product that the bigger companies couldn’t compete with, a management team full of industry veterans that had previously been through a billion dollar acquisition, and the capital and contacts that are a by-product of such a profitable exit. They weren’t going to fail, but they could have had a smoother, more rewarding ride—for the company and particularly for the increasingly dissatisfied workers.  Because the company was growing and the clients marginally satisfied, the façade of product success belied organizational failures that could have potentially been crippling in lesser firms.

In the case of Sam Bradford, the St. Louis Rams did not draft or trade for a viable backup, despite the fact he had just missed the entire second half of the previous year with a season ending knee injury. There was no succession or emergency plan. In your technology or media firm, who is the most important employee? It is likely your best developer or creative mind. A case could be made for the rainmaking salesperson, though in smaller organizations that is often also the owner. Are you prepared if your MVP leaves?

At ABC Tech, they were not. And in many of the startup and early stage growth companies I see, they are not either. Here are some things to keep in mind as you grow your organization:

Develop Your Backup Quarterbacks

You don’t need to have Tom Brady, future hall of famer, backing up Peyton Manning, future hall of famer. But it would be helpful to have someone better than Curtis Painter, who replaced Manning in Indianapolis and went 0-8.

ABC Tech didn’t develop talent either. They had several top-level engineers, an independent consulting firm to fill in gaps and then a layer of inexperienced coders that needed training. There wasn’t a lot in the middle and when new developers were hired, they weren’t trained sufficiently. An owner at another company I know of once told me he didn’t have the resources to train new hires. They either worked out or they were let go, sometimes in as little as a month. As it turns out, these were mostly very young developers who had promise but just needed guidance. This owner wanted to pay less than market value and hoped to land the ‘rock star’ that every HR department seeks. It does happen, but it’s rare.

Startups sometimes pride themselves on having flat organizations but in their effort to protect themselves from the big corporate bureaucracies that stifle growth and innovation, they mold a culture so flat it ends up having no structure at all. Having layers of bosses may be bad when it comes to getting buy-in for every decision from multiple sources, but having layers of experience is a good thing. Any one layer should be training the level below it not only how to do their job better but how to acclimate young people to the business world, giving them a deeper understanding of the bigger picture and issues surrounding the work that they are doing. If the majority of the company is C-level and entry level, there is going to be an organizational disconnect.

Collaborate instead of dictate

At ABC Tech, the majority of the workers were developers. The business and operations staff was small in number but capable of managing the work. However, there was tremendous dissatisfaction in work performance. The founders, who never failed to parrot a catch phrase they learned out of context from the latest tech illuminati talking at TEDx on YouTube, set high expectations without defining any goals, stressing employees about not being able to deliver on ambiguity and enigmatic signals.  The bosses at this firm had an older world view of management in which they dictated orders and didn’t welcome feedback.

When I worked at a media agency several years ago, we were growing bigger and had branched out into two separate companies. As somebody who was directly handling all aspects of the business from the finance, operations and administrative side—everything except sales and coding—I wanted to hire somebody to take the basic, daily transactional tasks off my plate. I found an enthusiastic young woman who had a college degree but was going back to learn accounting. At first, she learned the basics of the role, but soon asked for more. When she would have a question, I would tell her how to do what was required. But as she grew in her job, I noticed she was more effective when given greater context around her tasks. Instead of telling her an answer in two minutes, I might take 15-20 and explain additional concepts in greater detail and why such activities are important in business in general. When she would ask how something should be handled, I changed my approach to asking her back how she thought it should be handled or what has she learned in class about these principles. Teaching her the job was less about formalized training and endured through recurring dialogue. The experience was as rewarding for me as it was for her. It reinforced how important collaboration with your colleagues is to the success of the individuals as well as the organization as a whole.

Sometimes collaboration works too in the NFL. More teams are going to running back by committee instead of the stud workhorse getting 300-400 touches a season. The old Vince Lombardi style of dictatorial coaching is also giving way to a more player-friendly personality that gets an edge through innovative play calling. The quarterbacks—the great ones—are now given the authority to call their own plays or change the play at the line of scrimmage instead of having it dictated from the coaches on the sideline. But, of course, those quarterbacks have to be in the game to make those calls. If they are injured, like Sam Bradford, the team better hope the backup has been trained properly. Has yours?

Marc Baskin is the co-founder of inControl Ads, a technology platform that puts consumers in control of their advertising experiences across all devices and screens. He has helped several start-ups go from just a few people, to public companies. Marc frequently writes pieces regarding the industry, as well as culture, history, and science.