Equalizing Your Startup

March 28, 2020  •  3 min read

My co-founders and I have been running WorkClout for over two years. We’ve experienced a lot of successes so far: We got accepted into Y Combinator, closed a seed round, and (most importantly) we’re solving a legitimate pain point our users are experiencing.

When someone asks me for advice on how to operate an early-stage startup, I always find myself at a loss for words. I could hit you with the boilerplate jargon: “Talk to your customers. Don’t hire too fast. Do things that don’t scale.”

And while this advice is invaluable the first time you hear it, it doesn’t help with the day-to-day minutia of operating a startup.

I’ve found that the best analogy I could think of is this: Operating a startup is a lot like mixing music; it’s all about finding the best Equalization (EQ) settings for your company.

For those of you that aren’t familiar with the process of mixing music, you’ll probably recognize what a mixing board or an EQ board looks like:

EQ Board

The board has multiple Level Control Faders (let’s call them “sliders”). A slider controls the volume of its respective channel.

Very much like a startup, every song has its own unique EQ settings. You might be going for a more bass-heavy vibe, and therefore you’d slide the low-end frequency sliders up. Or maybe you’re going for a low-fi garage-band sound, and you’d slide the high-band frequency sliders up.

The EQ channels in your startup represent different factors that you may or may not care about, such as “Work/Life Balance,” “Runway,” “Customer Happiness,” “Telecommuting,” and more.

The sliders on these channels can be moved up and down until you find just the right EQ. Every song that you mix requires its own unique EQ settings to sound just right and the same goes for every startup. There is no one-size-fits-all EQ.

The “Work/Life Balance” channel might be raised at one company because the company prioritizes employee happiness and deplores employee burnout. The “Runway” channel may be lowered at another company because the company values hiring as many people as possible to quickly reach its goals, regardless of the company’s burn rate.

These Are Not Core Values

At this point, EQ channels may sound synonymous to “core values,” but this is wrong. Core values can’t be changed easily. In most cases, core values can’t (and shouldn’t) be modified at all. Core values are things that a company should be unwavering on under all circumstances, such as “Trust.”

Contrastingly, EQ channels can be adjusted with minimal effort. Equalizing your company is an ongoing task that’s never complete - very much like a music DJ who is continuously flipping through songs in their setlist; the DJ may use different effects and EQ settings depending on the current song.

For example, if your company’s best sales quarter is in Q2, you may find that “Work/Life Balance” is a lower priority for your company in Q2. Or if an unexpected turn of event takes place (e.g., COVID-19), you may find yourself raising your “Telecommuting” EQ channel, as your company makes an unprecedented transition to becoming 100% remote.

The ease of adjusting an EQ channel is meant to represent a type of agility that’s required of most successful startups, agility that core values simply don’t permit. This isn’t about defining core values and sticking to them; it’s about having constant conversations about the most essential things your early-stage company can do at this very moment to put you on the path to success.

What does your company’s EQ board look like these days?

Written by Richard Girges.

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