As an employer, how do I deal with employee burnout?
“Your design, if implemented across the company, has the potential to generate an additional $3 Billion in revenue for us,” said the VP of Marketing to me in a room full of his staff, “what do you need from us?” Eager faces looked astonished that the demo up on the whiteboard worked better than what they described to me when I sat with them in over fifty design-inquiry interviews. I thought for ten seconds, and said to the man at the head of the table “freedom”.
My boss, a Senior Engineering Manager, let me understand that evening that three directors, across three disciplines of Sales, Product and Engineering, asked him to support the project anyway he could if he wanted to be promoted. “I’m assigning five engineers to help you implement this as a product, into the core codebase” he said. “I’ve learned about entrepreneurship,” I said, “that it needs to be guarded against the mainstream culture”. He misunderstood the polite refusal. “You guys can work more from home” he said.
I started having nightmares. Two years of solo hard work that nobody understood stood in limelight, raising the stakes, invoking politics, jeopardizing more careers than mine, and foreshadowing peer opposition. The main codebase took 100 times longer to compile. The engineers wanted recognition for building what remained experimental. The engine of objectives for the next quarter drove the chain of expectation. The constraints of an engineering-driven culture stood opposed to cheap experiments. And the tires of motivation grinded against reality.
Now, Wyoming - that’s an interesting Summer vacation place when you feel crowded. The same counter-culture trait that made me an immigrant and an entrepreneur-in-waiting also caused me to marry a mid-West woman. And in her hometown, I learned what “Burnout” looks like, sounds like, smells like and feels like:
Take a motorbike made to roam the vast roads of the United States. Drive it all the way into Sturgis Motorbike rally. Then build a stage, with rails, flags and pomp. Put the bike up there. Block it with mounted steel. Chain it to the floor. Then tell five burly men to hold you in position, as you accelerate at maximum speed. The back tire spins in place. The wailing cry of the bike can be heard all across the city. And after a few smokey minutes, POP. The tire fails. Standing ovation. Applause in the fog. Cheers to beers. “GOOD BURN-OUT MAN!”, the counter-culture crowd screams, “BURN-OUT!”
When I returned, the engineers showed me the “properly engineered” demo they built in my absence. The project manager who worked alongside them wrote about me in a review that I seemed to spin in place a lot and make huffy noises, but not display anymore progress. In Fall, I gave a two week notice to my manager, “I love you guys, but I’m leaving to start a product on my own. I need freedom.” He still didn’t understand my reasons, but showed me a lot of kindness.
In Winter, we had a goodbye team lunch. “By the way,” said one of the five engineers, “They dissolved the entire department with hundreds of people, because a startup company provided a stripped-down tool that does a good-enough job. Our manager missed his promotion to a colleague. You chose the perfect time to give notice, did you know about all this?!”
“POP!” I heard a nerve in my temple. Smoke must have come out of my ears. And I smiled in deflated agony. “I’m sorry my friend,” I said, “doing your best work under cultural constraints is an unthankful business.”
The revenue of the competing startup for the year in question increased by $3 Billion, the same number projected during the demo. The day I quit, the startup started constructing the tallest tower in San Francisco with the money. Each day that I pass by the construction, I make a fist and whisper "Good burnout!"
Amin Ariana is a software entrepreneur in San Francisco.
Readers shared their thoughts on this essay:
Just out of curiosity, Amin,
what do you think Salesforce (the startup you mentioned) do right to take the ~$3 Billion SMB Advertisers "pie" from Google?
Did they simply benefit from Google's strategic blunder mentioned here or if there's more?
Thanks in advance :)
Hi Stepanus, I have discussed the mechanics of how this happens in another essay, "The Achilles' heel of large monopolies" (http://www.aminariana.com/essays/defensive-clusterfuck). In this case, it applies to a department.
What tends to happen to innovation in larger companies is that their revenue, even in billions, doesn't move the needle as a percentage of the overall company's revenue. But it does, for a startup. Middle-Managers feel under the gun for moving that needle, and therefore kill projects that distracts from their cash-cow (in this case Ads) even if multiple quarters down the line, the innovation could in fact move the needle. One man's garbage is another's treasure.
The highest stakeholder (in this case the founders) end up wondering why innovations continue to get killed before they rise to the top. Realizing it's a middle-management incentive problem, they try to divide the company into separate departments to protect innovation from the mainstream operations. This partly explains why years later, Google became Alphabet. Every enterprise, from Google to General Electric, in the end becomes a fund of funds rather than a maker.
Salesforce did nothing smarter than pursuing the SMB market as its sole focus. If your focus is further down-market than a giant busy with its cash-cow customers, you'll get away with it. That's how Apple took the Mobile market from Microsoft and IBM. It's how Google took Browser Advertising from Yahoo and Microsoft; how Facebook took Social advertising from Google, and in this case, how Salesforce took cloud-CRM from Oracle and Google. Pick the lucrative project that the rich find too dirty to do, and they'll be too happy to become your customer instead of competing with you -- until their cash-cow dies, like PC Windows for Microsoft. Then they start buying, and the once star becomes a blackhole.
A startup does, in words of AC/DC, that which life demands from the rich person in the making: "dirty deeds, done dirt cheap."
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