A startup team is always against the clock, always delayed. Developing leadership skills in a startup team is critical for its success.

An excellent way to develop leadership skills is to read The Lean Startup book. Recently, I’ve finished up reading for the 3rd time.

I realized that most of the projects (if not all), in my 20 years in the software industry, were failures.

The cost of not caring overweights project delays

In my first job, I was a web developer. I vividly remember how boring was the website I was working on. So, I decided to play with javascript animations and added a small easter egg: if you mouse over at the very top, the company’s mascot will pop up.

I was in a project review meeting with the company owner. He was yelling at us about how late the project was, and how expensive the website turned out to be.

Then he stopped and said: “(…) but this mascot thing you did here shows that you guys care. I will let you continue with the project.

I don’t care what happens next

Most of the time, when I was developing new features, or managing developers, or talking to clients, there was an unspoken voice in my head saying “I don’t care what happens next.”

Would users use my feature? I don’t care. Would this feature save costs or generate revenue for the company? I don’t care.

A rockstar software engineer does not care how many users will use the new feature; he cares about building the feature.

I remember a good friend (and probably the best engineer I know) saying, “I test all my code because I want to sleep well at night.

He was talking about how to avoid midnight calls because of production issues. He did care about what happens next because he was on the hook if something happened.

Reward individual wins with team wins

How do we get software engineers, QA engineers, Product Managers, investors, founders to care about what happens next? What happens after you ship a feature, a customer uses it, pays for it, and the startup gets the next funding round?

It is not incentivized with bigger salaries, bonuses, stocks in the company. I’ve been paid from $100 to $100k for software projects, and the voice was still there in my head.

Let me oversimplify the answer in one word: recognition. If you put the recognition in the right place, at the team level, you get people to work on the right task.

Recognition is a focus tool

The best Product Manager I’ve worked with never congratulated me for well-written code. He kept telling me “this feature will make the users happy“, “this feature will save us a lot of time…”

And in doing so, I cared about developing something that users will use. If users were complaining for any reason, I immediately stopped whatever interesting thing I was doing and jumped on to help.

Recognition of the team results is the most powerful focus/productivity tool for individuals.


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Leo Celis