There is politics in every startup, period

Corporations are full of politics, you can only advance your position if you are well-versed in pushing the right buttons, being in the right place in the right time, knowing when to stay silent and when to be vocal, understanding people’s weaknesses and even sabotaging the colleagues you are competing with.

Startups are not like that. In startups passionate and brilliant people work together on their common brainchild. Startups are full of hands-on professionals who care about the product and nothing else. Startups don’t have politics. Lol, yeah, right…

Sure, corporations have another type of politics, on a bigger scale. But small-scale politics starts the moment you get a co-founder. As soon as there is a dispute of who has the final call on this or that question, there is an element of politics. As soon as someone is trying to maximize their personal gains, there is politics. As soon as someone is trying to convince colleagues or board members to support the course of action that is right in their eyes, there is hell of a lot of politics.

So don’t believe when someone tells you their startup doesn’t have politics. Chances are they are themselves the source of most politics in the startup and are just deceiving you. Or they possess the rare type of personality which allows them to escape into an autonomous work bubble, minimizing ambitions and their role in making any meaningful decisions.

Politics is inevitable. We humans are wired to be egotistical and to care mostly about our precious selves ahead of others. But ambitions often come hand in hand with professionalism and pro-activeness. So if you hire, partner with or come to work for eager professionals, be ready to face politics in your startup.

Just acknowledge it and try to minimize it. Obviously, different stages require different approaches. In a small co-founding team of 2-4 persons, it all boils down to personal relationships. It helps enormously to have co-founders with whom you have done actual work before, to elect a leader accepted by everyone or to assign non-overlapping areas of responsibility so that decisions can be made by a single responsible person.

In my experience, the stage of first employees and initial growth is the least prone to detrimental politics. New hires accept the founders as indisputable leaders, and the company is so small that everything is in plain view for everyone, thus no miscommunication, vile scheming or political coalitions.

The problems usually start when the startup reaches the headcount of 20. My theory of why 20 employees is the threshold, is that at this point there emerges the need for a taller hierarchy. This is the tipping point when the co-founders truly put on their C-level hats and middle level managers get assigned. Immediately you have a three layer hierarchy with two or three teams competing for company resources and influence over the C-layer folks, and team members competing for the position of the middle manager. And from there it’s all downhill, or rather uphill if think in terms of how tall the hierarchy is.

The obvious ways to avoid politics is to always do everything alone or at least to keep your startup as small as possible. If this doesn’t cut it for you, brace yourself for the ride.

Just don’t pretend there is no politics in startups, please.

Boris Nechaev

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