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Personal values key to startup success

Dr. Michael Butler

Biotech Advisor, Chip Diagnostics

Starting and building a company is an inherently creative process, and maybe certain creative geniuses can do everything.  There are well known companies today which we tend to associate with brilliant and charismatic leaders; Apple and Amazon are two of my favorites.  But, whilst we tend to associate those successful companies today with respected businessmen, you can be assured that they faced their challenges, and needed good people around them to get the company on its feet.   


Tables, not knee pads

One of my favorite examples of the value of having the right people around in a startup is the “Jeff Bezos Packing Table Story” (Youtube). Here he describes a scene from the early days of Amazon in which they were working late, hunched over packing boxes, backs and knees aching from kneeling on a concrete floor.  Bezos recounts how he came up with the bright idea of kneepads to alleviate the symptoms, only to have his idea shot down by (I assume) his junior colleague’s better one. Watch the clip, it’s a funny story.


Great companies start with who, not where

The point here is that it’s important to have the right people around you in a startup.  Actually, it’s important in a startup, and early scale-up, and a mid-sized or a large company.  Jim Collins is known for his analogy between business leaders and bus drivers when he says “…leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. And they stick with that discipline—first the people, then the direction—no matter how dire the circumstances.”  With startups and early-stage scale-up companies I’d emphasize Collins’ advice by stating that the entrepreneur surround themself with only the right people.

What does that mean?  How do you identify the right people?  Irrespective of the type of company you are trying to get off the ground, you will probably need people who possess a certain demonstrable skill-set, or have achieved something relevant to your company in the past.  Those are certainly important, but in themselves may not be enough. It has been my experience that success, and even survival in start-up and early scale-up companies, is as rooted in the personal values held by the people in the team as it is in their experience or technical expertise.  This is because it is the values that people hold that are more likely to bind them together in the common challenging and creative cause.  When people are bound by common values they have the potential to be truly creative; this may allow the company to amount to much more than the sum of its parts.


What values matter?

What values are important?  Ultimately that’s a choice you’ll need to make for yourself. In difficult, creative environments where problems must be overcome daily, I’ve found that people who are naturally engaging, inquisitive, truth-seeking, open-minded, flexible, and outcome-oriented work well together. People who are engaging will naturally talk about challenges as they arise, and won’t need encouragement to participate.  Inquisitive people are constantly asking themselves about how things work and how they might be improved. Truth-seeking means that we don’t accept what we see, read or are told at face value; we look for evidence and validate the facts before we act. Open-mindedness and flexibility make it easier for us to abandon our old ideas and act upon the new evidence as we encounter it. Finally, being goal oriented helps to ensure that all of our creative energies are focused on completing our goal.


If getting your start-up company off the ground is your intention, try to hire people with values that are conducive to the challenge you face.  If for no other reason, you want to be the next Jeff Bezos, surrounded by people telling you to get a table.


Dr. Michael Butler

Biotech Advisor, Chip Diagnostics