Employees · Founders

Advice for holding on to employees during tough times?

Alison Lewis CEO/Creative Director

July 11th, 2014

We have a product and are now fundraising mode. It's not building and making mode, so what happens to key players and designers at this time?

During this time, budgets are tight and people are having to do other jobs to stay on top of their bills. Some of us stay on full time, but at least 1/2 are not able too. This includes Co-Founders. One of which has decided not to check in with us at all, is slow to respond to emails (if at all) and decided to focus on only one thing in the business while doing a part-time job. 

I've been inviting everyone into the weekly fundraising meetings so they can be a part of the strategy and be a part of the fundraising group; however, these are usually after hours of regular work days to accommodate people's new schedules and we get resistance. 

What are some tactics you all have used successfully to hold onto the team members you like during these times? Do you just let them go and say "when we are funded, I'll give you a call?" or keep them on staff doing support work that isn't really their hot zone of excitement? 

People want more transparency, but seem to frown at coming in at odd times to fit schedules; which exhausts and annoys me. In or Out is my motto; but people still need jobs - so how does one compensate for these new schedules? 

Mona Sabet

July 11th, 2014

Hi Alison

Tough situation that many of us go through.  A "co-founder" that stops checking in and limits his involvement isn't a co-founder.  He might be a key employee, but you need much more out of a co-founder.

We went through the same issue.  I think in some ways, the problem had more to do with how we decided to build our team rather than what they did after.  We were desperate to get developers working so we weren't as picky over making sure there was passion and a cultural fit.  Then when we hit a slow period in development, we hit your problem.  

At this early stage you need people who are so bought into your mission that they will attend after hours meetings and do all sorts of crazy stuff because they are passionately engaged in what you're doing.  If I were you, I'd invest this time in going to find those people!

BTW, checked out your site and love the idea!

John Anderson

July 11th, 2014

My first reaction is that if they won't even attend an after hours meeting, then do you really think they lack the energy and drive to help you build your business?  Totally get that people have to pay their bills, but if they won't even put in a little "sweat equity" and attend a one hour meeting at like 6 or 7 p.m., then I think you need to decide if they are start-up material.


July 11th, 2014

If you're all in the same geographical area, you could all try pooling money to purchase necessary items in bulk from CostCo or somewhere similar. 

If timing of leases permits and you don't have families maybe make a temporary hacker house by getting a 6 month lease on a big enough rental to make housing expenses cheaper. 

And then if you're living close to each other ride sharing/carpooling saves money on gas and car maintenance. 

All things like this help make their life easier with the lack of reliable paychecks and could help bring a team closer together by making you share this adverse experience. Partnership is supposed to be a marriage. 

I don't think this level of closeness is unreasonable, especially if the survival of the business is at stake. And clearly they aren't there for the paycheck and have a greater personal investment in success.

Eugene Gekhter CEO, Memorable. Founder, SharePay.

July 11th, 2014

As for your dilemma, if you feel like you are still in "start-up" mode, I would recommend taking a look at Slicing Pie and applying it retroactively with the team members that you find are indispensable to your success. If they believe in the vision of your company enough, they should at least give some thought to foregoing some if not all salary now for equity in the venture. But it will all depend on everybody's circumstances too, but at least you have another solid option to work with.

Hugh Bryant Plautz

July 11th, 2014

I agree with everything said here. Just wanted to comment that the site/product is super cool!


July 11th, 2014

Alison, This is a tough question. Hard to answer without more detail. I've been there and know first hand how stressful it is. Bad news; you will loose some good people, let them go. Good News; The were probably not the right fit for what you are trying to accomplish. As painful as it is let them go. It's better for them and for you(and the team). At this early stage you need people that understand it is a team effort, that it is going to be hard, and most importantly understand this is what it will take.

 You always have to be careful how much *bad* financial info you relay to the team. Transparency is good but keep in mind not everyone can handle the pressure of low funds. If you push too much urgency on certain people they will walk.

What I have done in the past is 're-sell' the team on the vision. Reassure them that the company will make it out alive and that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Layout a plan and ask for input. It is very important that you stay by the sides of the remaining team. Show them you are just as committed as you want them to be.

That type of attitude is infectious and will certainly boost moral. I wish you lots of luck and hopefully you will figure out the right answer. Don't quit until you do! -Gabe

Ryan Nurmela Managing Director at bigCampus, Inc.

July 11th, 2014

Hah, I'm going through the exact same thing right now with my team. We had a product that we developed together and put out into the market space and we aren't getting the kind of traction that we need to persist. So this is how I spent the last three weeks:
  • week 1 - let everyone know what is going on in no uncertain terms and plan for an "all-hands-on-deck" meeting for the next week.
  • week 2 - have an one week where the whole team has a chance to be part of the pivot planning and development.
  • week 3 (this week) - whole team meeting where the pivot is decided. Before this meeting I asked my whole team to be prepared for a recommitment. I answered as many questions as possible from the team and let them tell me directly and privately how they would like to proceed.
The whole process was cathartic for myself and my team and most importantly helped create massive clarity for myself and the company. It's never pretty to perform a big pivot, especially when people aren't getting paid, but I've pulled through it and it feels good.

Christina Tseng Product Marketing, Management Consultant

July 11th, 2014

Regular employees and founding team are totally different roles and will have different mentalities, though they are all people, doing similar work, and all have the same basic needs of money, food and housing.  If people aren't willing to stay on it, and stay with you through thick and thin, they are not founding team material.  Doesn't mean they are bad employees, but we are not paying them like employees, either.  
I'd make sure key knowledge/know-how gets preserved and documented, and just view this process as a time to "restructure" your core team.  Employees come and go, nothing you can do and nothing is wrong with that, especially when you are not paying them full salary.  Core is core, and is special and precious, because you have been through tough times together.  Try not to get annoyed because that will affect your judgment and performance :) Easier said than done.  I know..... 

Alison Lewis CEO/Creative Director

July 11th, 2014

The co-founder, that doesn't act like a co-founder has been offered an employee contract/MOU to bring him on when funded and he's helping finish up one project, though lightly. 

We are open to doing housing together (some of us) but that will include a couple of married people and kids so that's not perfectly appropriate.

Are there words or ways to show people that building a product right now isn't the right use of time/money when we have prototypes already? My approach is to have them do drawings and sketches of the product as they would like it to be and get some clear user feedback/data from customers. 

We have no need to pivot, we're just needing funding for manufacturing (we've got people in the pipeline, but with hardware you've got to get to manf. scale to respond to their needs fast enough - stores don't wait 1 year for product... just not the case). 

As a designer myself, not building and creating can be difficult. So, any suggestions for keeping up spirits while doing some dirty work is good advice. 

I feel great about where we are and excited about fundraising; I think it's more of a mother feeling like I can't provide fast enough for my ducklings. There are enough that are willing to swim and fly! 

Thanks you all for liking our work! I like it too! 

Alison Lewis CEO/Creative Director

July 11th, 2014

OH. Gabriel.. your advice is right on track:

"What I have done in the past is 're-sell' the team on the vision. Reassure them that the company will make it out alive and that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Layout a plan and ask for input. It is very important that you stay by the sides of the remaining team. Show them you are just as committed as you want them to be."