I can bet you know at least one successful person who is constantly swamped with work, yet is very hesitant to unload some of it to other people. In cases like that, the inability and/or unwillingness to delegate efficiently becomes a point of failure.
In this guide we will cover:
- What tasks you need to do yourself early on
- The stages at which you’ll need to transfer workload to other people
- How to delegate and monitor progress
- . Tasks You Should Not Delegate Early On
- . What To Delegate And When To Do It
- . How to delegate and monitor progress
On a personal level, with success comes prominence, and with prominence – a lot of opportunities. And yet, the failure to delegate all but the most crucial tasks and decisions disable you to pay enough attention to those opportunities and grabbing the valuable ones.
At the level of the organization, the failure to delegate leads to a lot of inefficiencies. Few would argue that in many large organizations 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. In large organizations, this might lead to increased costs and decreased productivity, but in startups, a similar failure to delegate and spread-out responsibilities could be fatal.
Startups by definition start small and if successful – grow at a very fast pace. With growth, the workload increases, and the failure to delegate responsibilities to new people will obviously slow down or outright stop the growth of the startup. As Paul Graham puts it, startup = growth. The failure to delegate might be the death of an otherwise successful startup project.
And for founders who are already busy with other tasks (job, other projects) when the startup idea comes, the failure to delegate early on could mean that the startup idea either never gets started or never gets the needed attention it requires to get properly tested.
Our experience shows that this is one of the main reasons people choose not to start a new startup venture. Or in other words, the failure to delegate kills the project before it even begins. That’s why we highly recommend that if you can’t start your startup by yourself, hire someone who can help you do it.
The truth is that while most startup products can scale, the founders can’t.
Delegating a task that you would usually do yourself to somebody else is something that comes surprisingly difficult to most people for a variety of (mostly psychological) reasons. This might be especially true for the self-driven type of person who is likely to become a startup founder. As mentioned, however, learning to delegate is simply non-negotiable in the realm of startups.
While initially, you would have to (and should) do mostly everything yourself, your long-term goal should be to gradually delegate everything (aside from the most crucial strategic decisions) to other team members or even freelancers and contractors.
Working ON rather than IN your business is key for long-term success, yet this is much easier said than done in the realm of brand-new business ventures.
1. Tasks You Should Not Delegate Early On
While your long-term goal should be to delegate as much as possible, getting your hands dirty in the early stages of the startup is mandatory.
The biggest reason innovative startups fail is that they are building something that the market doesn’t need. Consequently, the founders need to participate in the process of the idea materializing in reality.
The early-stage idea and product iterations are what determines if the startup finds a product-market fit. The founders are the people who will have to recognize the problems in their vision and think of a solution. And the more involved they are in the business, the higher the chances they will introduce successful solutions.
1.1. Talking To Customers And Sales
Talking to customers is the basis of the whole validation process. It’s very important for the person who had the idea to establish contact with the potential users so that the idea that’s in his or her head can be reshaped by the direct feedback.
Delegating this fundamental task is not recommended because first – the founder has the most in-depth understanding of the idea, which means he or she can make the most out of the feedback. And second – the founder is the person who will make the iteration decisions.
1.2. Product And Marketing Strategy
Product and marketing strategy and the customer feedback and validation process belong to the same cycle of idea-feedback-iteration. The founders need to be the ones who understand their offering and their target market the best, which means they need to be in charge of such decisions for the same reason they need to be the ones to talk to customers.
While hiring in the later stages can definitely be delegated or even outsourced, early on building a coherent team is crucial. The founders need to find first employees with whom they can form a productive working relationship, as in a company as small as an early-stage startup having a synergistic team is crucial.
The people running the startup are often more important to investors than the idea itself, so delegating the fundraising process would simply decrease a great deal the chance you will be successful in it.
2. What To Delegate And When To Do It
As mentioned in the introductory part of this guide, as the company grows the founders would be forced to slowly but surely delegate most tasks in the project. When the startup grows, so does the workload.
This is a gradual process and what should be delegated first is case-specific. If the founding team has obvious holes in their areas of competence, the priority is to find people with experience in these fields because the simple act of delegating these tasks would instantly increase the quality of the job done. For example, a non-technical startup team that has used no-code solutions to put together an MVP desperately needs a technical person to improve this side of the process.
Once the holes in the needed skills for the team have been filled, it’s usually time to delegate the most time-consuming tasks with little relation to the main value offering of the business. These are usually administrative tasks, accounting, and legal questions. The division needs to be made if a team member needs to be hired for these tasks or if they could be outsourced to other companies, freelancers, virtual assistants, etc.
The core team must not be swamped with minor tasks. As mentioned, the goal is to work ON rather than IN the business. Filing your taxes properly isn’t something that makes or breaks a startup – it’s simply something that has to be done. The time of the founders is spent much better refining the core offering of the business, talking to customers, and finding new ones.
Once the business grows further, the workload will increase even in the important, value-generating tasks of the business. Up to this point, the startup team is small and with a relatively flat hierarchy, but at this point, the first hires would come that would need to be trained in taking over some of the tasks of the core team.
This is the moment in the life of the startup when the risk of delegation inefficiencies is highest, which means you need to proceed with a deliberate approach.
3. How To Delegate And Monitor Progress
Here are a couple of tips that will help you deal with the process of delegation more efficiently.
3.1. Hire The Right Core Team
The first wave of delegation that we talked about – finding people who are good at the things at which you are not, requires the most trust. Hiring an expert and micro-managing her or him is a recipe for disaster.
“Let the manager make a decision if you trust him. Fire him and find someone you trust if you don’t.” – Sam Zemurray, aka Sam, the Banana Man
First, you need to find people that are skilled in their area and which can work with you well. Second, you need to communicate as best as possible everything you can about your business (product, market and customers), and you need to get out of their way.
The “hire slow, fire fast” mantra is crucial at this stage. You need to treat your first employees the same way you do your co-founders because often they would have a similar impact on the business.
You need people who are self-driven with high initiative and risk tolerance, and you need to align their interests with your own – this is usually done with stock options. The right person for the first wave of startup employees is usually more motivated from the upside potential of the venture rather than from a stable salary.
3.2. Communication Is The Key When Training New People
The second wave of employees, the ones you’ll have to train to take over some of your own tasks, might require a higher level of managerial work than your first hires.
The key at this stage of delegation is deliberate, efficient communication.
First, communicate not only what needs to be done, but also why it’s important for the company. This gives the person a sense of purpose and meaning and ensures they would own the task.
Finally, you need to communicate why you’ve chosen the particular person. To do this, you need to know your team members – not only their skills but also their interest.
Second, encourage your employees to ask for help. Let them know that you don’t expect them to do everything perfectly from the beginning (this means tolerating the fact that they will initially do your jobs worse than you, even fail), but that you expect them to learn and actively improve.
3.3. Employ A Project Management Process
Having a deliberate project management process would make delegation much less chaotic.
First, it’s important to measure progress (ideally data-driven, with the help of carefully chosen KPIs) in order to be able to link each team member’s contribution to the growth of the startup.
Second, keep in mind that some people are reluctant to openly share their problems and ask for help. Because of this, it’s a good idea to allocate a time which allows each team member to talk about the problems they are facing, especially the new hires who are taking on new tasks.
For example, the Scrum project management framework does this by introducing well-defined stages:
- A project backlog: all tasks that need to be done.
- A sprint backlog: a great opportunity to delegate tasks to various team members. A sprint is usually one-week long.
- Daily stand-up meetings: a great opportunity to share problems related to completing the tasks.
- And a sprint review meeting: an opportunity to evaluate the progress and to share feedback and learnings from the sprint in order to make sure your whole team is improving in the long run.
Success for startups is defined by fast growth, and the constantly increasing workload that follows (or even precedes) growth means that delegating tasks and onboarding new people is a constant part of running such a business.
Consequently, delegating successfully is a mandatory prerequisite of startup success.
- First, you need to think about your first hires the same way you think of co-founders. You need to find the right people who you trust, and you need to get out of their way.
- Second, when training your second wave of hires you need to be very deliberate in your communication and project management process.