Being in control versus being a control freak in a lean startup

by Jennifer Hepworth

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the notion of control. I’m generally a person who feels most comfortable in the driving seat, having decided on a destination, figured out the best way to get there and chosen the sound track. This attitude has gotten me a lot of places, and I think a strong sense of personal responsibility for outcomes is an important quality and a Good Thing.


There’s a line. On one side of the line is being in control and on the other is being a control freak. I’m not saying I’ve been there and made large and messy mistakes and learned the hard way that control-freakery must be avoided, but I’m fortunate enough to have met some very smart people with relevant things to say on the topic which will hopefully prevent me from heading down that path.
1. Great entrepreneurs know what they’re bad at, and hire awesome people to do it for them (Mike Cassidy).

In some ways, Steve Jobs was the consummate control freak (just check out Apple’s wheels within wheels org chart), and he certainly liked being in control. However, though he was clear on the engineering goals he set for his products (extend the battery life! EXTEND THE GOD DAMNED BATTERY LIFE!!!!!) he didn’t care how those goals were achieved. Despite being able to code, his gift was in marketing and design and from the very start of his career he left the engineering to other more capable people, like Steve Wozniak.

2. Take on the tasks dictated by your comparative advantage (Jeffery Bussgang)

This is subtly different advice from point 1. There’s a chance you already know what you suck at, in which case you may follow point 1. and stop reading now. However, just in case you’re one of the tiny number of people who are demonstrably great at everything, or a member of the far larger group of people who believe they’re great at everything, read on. Say you’re better than everyone in your company at identifying new product features, UX design, marketing and sales. First, I would say someone’s done a pretty crappy job at hiring. Second, I would say IT DOESN’T MATTER. It only matters where your relative strength lies. If you’re great at everything, but really really great at sales, you should devote as much of your time to this as possible, off-loading those tasks where you don’t have a comparative advantage to someone else. In a world of finite resources (in this case your time), you maximize your productivity by focusing your efforts on those areas where you’re, you know, most productive.
A few days ago we had a great class with a successful entrepreneur and class guest who readily admits to falling victim to some aspects of control-freakery (though let’s call him a Hero CEO out of respect). In 2010, with a decent sales model and a customer lifetime value easily in excess of 3x the cost of customer acquisition, he was reticent about accepting an unsolicited offer of additional funding from one of their investors to ramp up their sales force. The reason? He felt uncomfortable with the loss of control which inevitably comes as you grow your organization (in his case, to a VP of Sales). He did end up taking the funding, and the company has grown successfully a result, but the fact that decision was delayed and an opportunity could have been missed provides a salutary lesson to anyone who catches themselves trying to dip their fingers too deep into too many pies.

Easier said than done, but maybe next time I’m driving I’ll let someone else chose the radio station.