Who is the bad cop in your startup? Because every startup needs one, atleast!
I hope you already have the answer before you read this. If not, it is a problem.
Let me explain what falls under the difficult questions category:
- Those questions which make it difficult for you to ask directly (salary, equity, compensation, critical feedback)
- Those questions which you know everyone (at least a few) has in mind, but not able to ask.
- Those questions which point to the elephant in the room
There should be at least one bad Cop. Mostly, the problem is to bring the problem onto the table. In my experience, once the problem is pointed out, others find it less difficult to pour in their opinion.
Let’s start with the basic question – why the bad cop? After all, he is ‘bad’…
When it is all fine and rosy, there is (mostly) no need for a bad cop. But that’s not the case most often. When a problem arises, the team with no bad cop will never face it. It will go over, under, around the problem, but never head-on with it. It will be like a ‘quick-fix’. Hence, the problem won’t get solved. The bad thing about this approach is that the problem will come head-on at some point of time in a much worse shape. You should rather ‘stitch in time to save nine’.
When you have an issue with a team member, unless you open up, it will remain inside, which will cause a bias for you. Over a period of time, this will aggregate in the gunny bag. One day it will explode with some small trigger. The other person would be like ‘why the hell did he shout at me for not cleaning my cup?’ or something like that because he wouldn’t know the contents in your ‘gunny bag’ which you have been accumulating over the past several months. Even in cases where you think your CEO is not doing the work, you should just tell it openly.
When a decision is needed to be made, somebody has to step up and bring up all the different perspectives (some of them would be not so easy to say aloud). How many times have you heard a founder saying – ‘he doesn’t do much, he is just there’? This is particularly true when ‘he’ is a co-founder. Teams find it difficult to critically talk to a co-founder or to fire him/her if it gets out of hand.
A typical example of a team not having a bad cop:
Recently I met a founder who asked me whether my startup equity split is equal. At that moment, I knew her startup equity split was equal. I answered her that we also started as equal split company, then later on we sat down and reset it one year into the company.
The problem with equal split is – if I’m an investor and looking into your company, and I see 33.3% each for 3 founders, the first thing that occurs to me would be ‘these folks can’t have the difficult discussion and hence they have split like this. There is absolutely no way all 3 brings exactly the same value to the company. Why would I give my money to a team who can’t sit down and have a difficult situation?’
I have seen stigma associated with certain topics like equity, titles, roles, way forward for the company, etc. The problem is more prominent when close friends start the company. They bring a lot of emotion alongwith. As they say, ‘it is better to be friends through business than do business through friendship’. Is it always true? Not at all. We are 4 friends who started the company and I would say we have a mix of a lot of logic and a bit of emotion. I believe a bit of emotion is strength.
Someone, preferably the CEO (in our startup, I’m that bad guy), should be the bad cop in the team. If there are more than one, it is fine. There should be at least one for sure. Otherwise, the elephant will remain in the room and all of us will move as though it is not there.
Being the bad cop can be difficult since everyone will hate you at some point of time (at least for a brief period). You should be ok with this. Your job is not to please everyone, but to steer the company in the right direction.
There should always be a child who would shout ‘the King is naked’, not because of naivety, but because you know too well that it is the right thing to say openly, before it’s too late.