Why Startups Have Fewer Dilbertian, Pointy-Haired Bosses

November 5, 2007

If the title of this article made you smile, then chances are that at some point in your life you've worked for a big company and/or been subjected to a Dlibertian pointy-haired boss/manager.

If you're not familiar with the stereotype of the pointy-haired boss, wander on over to The Dilbert Site.

One of the things I personally *love* about startups is that the likelihood of any given startup management team being totally clueless is much, much lower than that within a big company.

Lest you think I'm completely biased, because I've worked in and around startups for so long, I will let you know that I've experienced companies with billions of dollars of revenue and thousands of people -- all the way down to companies with two people and no revenues. Though my opinions might be biased, I don't think they're wrong.

Why Startup Management Is Usually Less Likely To Be Pointy-Haired

1. Closeness to Customers: Even within startups that have grown quickly, the management team is usually pretty close to real customers. They don't just sit in wood-panelled conference rooms and plot strategy. They're on the street talking to real prospects, closing real sales and addressing real issues that customers report. Startups where this is not the case are usually dead startups (or soon to be dead startups).

2. Aligned Incentives: Though it would be nice to think that managers everywhere are incented to act in the interests of the companies they work for, it's just not the case. In big companies, there are any number of possible motivations for management behavior -- only one of which is the success of the company. The primary competing incentive is job preservation and career growth. In a big company, career growth can often be independent of passionate committment to the company. In startups, the company *is* your career. There are few corners to hide in if you're not performing.

3. Emotional Commitment: Startup manangers often "live" their startup. They're committed. They have skin in the game. If the startup fails, *they* fail. Sure, they're likely recover and go on to live productive, satisfying lives. But, the experience will leave it's mark. In bigger companies, not so much. You go out, you find another job. More often than not, it's better.

4. Execution Counts More Than Strategy: In a big company, managers can often overly focus on strategy. They plot big, company-changing things. They think out-the-box. They pontificate on what they think will drive innovation, quality, service, sales, or whatever it is that they happened to be focused on. This is all fine and good, but it takes a while to measure whether a given manager's strategy was actually "good" (i.e. effective). At startups, managers are more often than not measured by less lofty things: like what they get done, or help get done. Nothing wrong with strategic thinking, but I've never read a Dlibert cartoon where the pointy-haired boss actually did something useful and productive. He's usually doing something "strategic" (and lame).

So, what do you think? Am I being overly harsh on big companies? Have I spent too much time at startups and as such have a distorted view? Or, do you find yourself nodding your head at most of these points and think I've got an uncanny knack for the obvious? Would love to read your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

Topics: strategy humor

Written by Dharmesh Shah

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