Leading a startup should be like driving a modern car

I started my business as a one-man-shop. After a year, we were three - Tomasz, my current CTO and Delfina, my current head of Customer support department. Now we're 9. It's still a small team, but it grew from 3 to 9 in one year and that's already a big step for me. (I wrote this article originally in Polish, for the startup magazine Proseed)
Modern-car
When you're like me, starting a one-man-shop startup, it's really hard to change the mindset of me as a "do-it-all" or "know-it-all" to a guy who has to grow a company and delegate tasks to his peers. I still caught myself believing that this or that can be done better, if only my myself. It's a tough one, but finally I've found a great analogy that can beautifully describe this change and how this should be perceived by a startup leader.

Driving a car is just steering

Recently, when driving with my family, I realized that although I'm the guy behind the wheel, the driver if you will, it's not like I'm doing a whole lot. Well, I'm still the crucial part of the equation - as a driver I'm steering the car to the direction we're going and setting up the driving tempo. That's about it. The car does the rest of the stuff for me.

Modern cars take care of the rest

The cars nowadays have so many systems that do the work for you that it's totally amazing. I don't need to change gears, the automatic transmission knows exactly which gear it should be using at each moment in time. I don't need to turn on or off the headlights, the car does that for me. When it rains, the screen wipers take care of the incoming water themselves. When I'm on the highway, the cruise control is busy maintaining the speed I'm at so that my legs can rest. Oh, and there is always the navigation system that is optimizing my route to the destination.

Many people criticize this kind of approach. They say the driver cannot depend on all these systems because should they fail, he'd be in jeopardy. Well, yes, but these system do make my job so much easier.

The same applies to a startup and its leader

My job is to take care of the direction we're going and setting the tempo at which we're getting there. That's it. The rest of the stuff should depend on the "systems" meaning my team, people around me, and of course computer programs. Sure, things may go wrong (and they do!) and in many cases there are issues I'd deal with differently, but the ability to rely on my "systems" (i.e. team) helps me focus on what's important and on actually doing my job of running a startup company. Just like a driver typing in the destination in the navigation system, thanks to the people in my team, I can focus on finding our "next destination" and making sure we get there. Without the driver, the car would just stand still.

The modern driver is not afraid of the modern systems in his modern car. That's why a modern entrepreneur shouldn't be afraid of these in his company.

And what do you think? Do you tend to do-everything-yourself or rely on your support systems?
I'm Michael Sliwinski and I'm an entrepreneur who's also the...
.. Founder of Nozbe.com - a time and project management web application
.. Editor of Productive! Magazine - a global PDF publication on productivity
.. and a blogger as well as a producer of a weekly 2-minute Productive! show.

Posted on Tuesday, December 20, 2011 (business)

TesTeq
Dec 20, 2011 18:02
Warning! There's a dangerous zone ahead. If you've got more direct subordinates than fingers you will not be able to delegate tasks unambiguously (you know... using your fingers: Tomasz, do this, Delfina, do that).
Michael Sliwinski
Dec 20, 2011 18:05
As we work remotely finger-pointing doesn't work, so I can have as many direct reports as I want, ultimately it all comes down to mouse clicks :-P

Just kidding, thanks for your comment TesTeq :-)