Managing Relationship Clutter: 4 Things I learned at Startup Bootcamp

By Richard C. Harris PhD

When I think about my experience in start-ups the first thing that comes to mind is the thrill of the start. Making something new happen is exciting. But there is another side to the startup experience—the emotional upheaval that happens under pressure, in some cases Zuckerbergian emotional upheaval. A lot of the talk about innovation and start-ups focuses on the product. But what about the relationships that must come together to move the product from concept to customer?

So last Saturday I took myself off to MIT to Startup Bootcamp. I am relieved to say that the most strenuous part of the boot camp was keeping up with the ideas coming at me for nine hours. Twitter followers will get a sense of what I mean by searching #sb2010. Let’s get the AMAZING things out of the way. The presenters were awesome, the house was packed, and the event was free and streaming on the web to an additional 1500+ people. (Videos coming.)

A little background: I know very little about the products these companies sell: from robots to web infrastructure to food from food trucks. I’ve spent the past 30 years helping companies improve their performance by clearing out the relationship clutter that gets in the way of high performance. So what did I learn about relationship clutter from these 12 start-up experiences?

The biggest thing I learned is that relationships for start-ups can be cluttered in four different ways. Here are some examples.

1. Founder-Founder Clutter

A striking number of presenters talked about the importance of taking time for the founders to maintain their relationship. Strategies for clearing out the clutter varied. Some founders learned the importance of doing things together that were not related to business. Bill Clerico (WePay) said that he and his co-founder bought a dog together. The dog acted as a real life reminder of the consequences if the partnership failed: one of them would get the dog—and the other wouldn’t.  Alexis Ohanian (Reddit, YCombinator) joked that the relationship was like a marriage—“although it was never consummated.”

There seem to be many causes for founder/founder clutter. Ego can be a big source of conflict. Genuine differences of opinion about strategy also pop up, particularly if the company is not performing to plan: Pivot or persist? Sell or refinance? Cut costs or invest?  One thing is certain, if founder/founder clutter is not cleaned up, it will have a knock-on effect on the entire company.

2. Leadership Team Clutter

Once the company is large enough to move beyond the 2-3 person founding team, another issue emerges: how to keep the leadership team aligned. Ric Fulop (A123 Systems) advised entrepreneurs to think that they are not just hiring for the present. Instead the people that they hire should be the people they will look to, to build the company.

Bob Metcalfe (3Com) pointed out that engineers and salespeople may be “common carbon life forms” but they differ from each other on many significant dimensions. Clearly the domain knowledge needed to grow a successful start-up requires a strong leadership team made up of different disciplines: design, engineering, sales, operations, finance, etc. And with each of these perspectives come the potential for relationship clutter. One of the first things I look for as a consultant to these teams is not how well they get along, but how well they manage their conflict openly. Are they using their differences to build a stronger company? Are they stuck in endless squabbling? Are they simply putting up with each other to avoid a hassle?

3. Company-Customer Clutter

Companies sometimes appear to go out of their way to frustrate customers. Of course they don’t, any more than they deliberately make low quality product. Seth Godin has an entertaining rant on this topic called “This is broken.” (Seth wasn’t at the conference.) Kevin Hale (WuFoo) described one of his company’s techniques for staying in touch with their customers. Employees write hand-written thank you notes. An added benefit of this approach: several customers have posted shots of these notes on social media sites giving the company free PR. WuFoo also has each person in the company take a turn on the customer support phone line. This is done to heighten the engineering group’s awareness of how customers are experiencing the product. “Design it as if you had to support it.” Interesting mantra.

Mick Mountz (Kiva Systems) described how his company uses customer experience for R&D. Customers buy his company’s robot-enabled inventory management system, and then Kiva Systems works closely with them during installation to document the changes that are needed to make the system work in the customer’s environment. These changes are incorporated into future customer sales. Customer responsiveness is sustained at a high level and the product improves with every new installation.

4. Founder-Funder Clutter

One of the critical relationships to get right is the relationship between the funder and the founders. Several speakers spoke of the number of pitches it takes in order to find an interested investor. It reminded me of the country-western song “The girls all look prettier at closing time.” There can be an element of desperation in trying to get early stage funding. And yet, Ric Fulop, who is now a VC, talked about the importance of focusing on the right investor and the access to other resources that the investor provides. I wrote recently about the mentorship role that angel investors play. An investor can offer a lot more than money, but both founder and funder need to be clear what those other sources of value are…or they’ll find themselves talking past each other and wondering why things are always so tense at board meetings.

Why can’t we all just get along?

Many years ago a French sociologist observed that people in high performing teams liked each other more than people in low performing teams. This finding in the late 1940s appears to have launched a movement in business to get people to like each other in order to improve performance. How else to explain the millions spent each year on Survivor-type team building exercises, company picnics, softball leagues, and beer blasts? Sure those things are fun, and they satisfy a social need.

But smart CEOs know that conflict is built into any relationship. The goal is not to make people like each other. The goal is to achieve something significant together—customers included. At Startup Bootcamp this point came out repeatedly: If you’ve got relationship clutter in your company, the important thing to do is focus on performance, and the liking part will take care of itself.


Rick Harris blogs about relationships and performance at

You can follow him on Twitter at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: