I’m writing to you from the reception desk. More on that in a moment. First, a cautionary tale.
A two person startup I’m mentoring needed someone to help with customer relationship management and I knew the perfect guy — years of experience in hospitality and sales relationships, and a brief time in a junior role at a startup. He was now a part-time house husband and was doing deliveries for a mate’s business making about $12/hour. This gig could be more interesting, pay a little more, and might turn into a full co-founder role with equity — great customer relationship management was always going to be core to the business.
I thought I was really clear when I briefed him about the nature of the gig — flexible hours, work from home, mostly on the phone and email, low pay but it might turn into a full co-founder role in a startup I’m reasonably confident will do well.
But when I spoke to him after he’d met the founders, he was telling me how he’d identified flaws in their marketing and PR strategy, was interested in helping them re-think their customer backend, and helping them with their investor pitch. And he asked me whether I thought the startup would be able to pay market rates.
Somehow, my mate had gone from “let’s roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty” to “high-level strategy consultant” in the space of one meeting. When I asked him why, he told me he thought the sales relationship work was a bit too menial. It was apparently below him. I’d wasted my startup founders’ time and what the hell did he mean, “too menial”?
Because I’m writing this blog post while taking my turn being the receptionist for BlueChilli. That’s right, me — with 20 years of startup experience, a few good exits, well-known mentor and early-stage tech investor, and member of the leadership team at BlueChilli — doing reception for a few hours.
You bet I am. If 20 years in startups has taught me anything, it’s that 90% of building a successful early-stage startup is just getting sh*t done, whatever needs doing, whenever it needs doing, and not being precious about it. A lot of that is what we call ‘concierging’ but a bunch of it is just taking out the trash and restocking the toilet rolls when that needs doing. Like some other startup accelerators, BlueChilli is growing fast and kicking goals, but like most accelerators (and most startups) we need to run tight on overheads, be smart on what we spend money on, and when.
Why does my startup need me to be a concierge when I’m a CEO?
Very early on when you’re still validating the basics of your business model, you need to be ready to ‘concierge’ — manually perform tasks and services that may one day be performed for you by a web platform, mobile app, or low-cost outsourced team. This teaches you first-hand which assumptions were correct and which were incorrect because they mess up your day, and you remember them that way because they cost you time and money you don’t have.
You learn who your best customers are by first name and they remember you even though you don’t have a fully-fledged tech startup yet because you emailed them personally, followed up with them by phone if they’ve left you a number, and you’ve shown an in-depth interest in learning what problems you can solve for them that they might be prepared to pay for.
Want to create the world’s first two-sided marketplace for sewer drain cleaners? Well, sorry, but you’re not going to be successful until you’re ready to stick your head in a few drains and learn about that industry from the dark, smelly inside out.
OK but why do I have to be the one who cleans the kitchen and answers the phone?
A little later on, when you’ve got a small team on-board, a lot of little office admin tasks start to arise. Nobody you hire to code, design, or market your business will ever answer the phone or transfer a call properly no matter how often you show them how you want it done. They are most unlikely to take out the trash reliably and without being ordered to. And you may wonder how it’s possible that four people can share a bathroom for a week while there’s no toilet paper and no hand towels, but I’ve seen it happen, followed shortly after by the entire team off work for a week with ‘unexpectedly high personal output volumes”.
And neither should they do that admin stuff — unless they’re a cofounder with an equity stake, you’re not paying them to do that admin stuff, and you’re crazy if you’re wasting your precious seed capital to pay a developer to be pissed off at you because you asked them to put their damn dirty coffee mug in the damn dishwasher and turn the damn thing on before they go home. It doesn’t make them write better code, I can assure you. You can stack that dishwasher yourself five times a week and it’s not going to cost your startup a cent.
Your startup’s too poor to hire proper admin people and proper office cleaners, so you and your co-founders need to suck it up and get that done. You need more time for the high-level CEO strategy stuff? Sleep is so last night.
Be a lean startup founder: design the criteria your startup needs to meet before it can pay for an office cleaner, a receptionist, a book keeper and a general manager, and be rigorous about meeting those criteria before you burden the business with the cost. Did you wonder why all the experienced mentors advised you to find a co-founder? Hello, a person I can share the office cleaning with!
(By the way, if you’re a startup in a startup incubator space like here at BlueChilli, of course we take out the trash, collect the mail and unpack the dishwasher for you)
I get cupcakes!
As for me, BlueChilli’s Sydney team just moved to a shiny new office, and unlike our humble old office, it comes with a reception area that needs to be staffed so visitors can be let in the front security door. We set ourselves an internal revenue goal for our new co-working and short-term startup office rentals in this space, and agreed we’ll hire a dedicated receptionist when we’ve met that revenue goal. Good, old-fashioned “don’t spend it until you’ve earned it” business management.
We won’t have to help out for very much longer, and in the meantime as we’ll all take a turn, it won’t take more than a few hours out of everybody’s week. And there are benefits: because it doesn’t involve answering the phone, I’ve discovered it’s actually easy to keep working from the reception desk. I’ve met a lot of people I didn’t know. And as I learned today, those people sometimes bring cupcakes for whoever’s on reception.
You want to bribe me with tasty treats? I’d like to see you try! (Really, you’re very welcome to!)
As with all advice, it’s possible to take things too far. You should brush your teeth and floss twice a day but if you’re brushing and flossing 20 times a day, you could be doing more harm than good. Make your own call about when your business is ready for you to spend more time on the “strategy stuff” than taking out the trash, but be guided by what your startup really needs, not what your ego really wants.
However, if you don’t like doing menial jobs, if you’re “just better at the strategy stuff”, if you feel a little embarrassed that an ex-colleague or friend might catch you answering the phone, you should aim to become a startup employee, because you’re not cut out to be a startup founder.