Startup Management 101

By Daniel J. Murphy

No matter what you complete, there will always be another task left to do. No matter how well you delegate, there will always be things left for you to do yourself.

Startup management is a bottomless pit of hard work and focus only achievable by unmitigated determination (and possibly really great stock options). That’s slightly glamorized, but if you’ve worked at a startup where expectations are huge and headcount if low, you know what I mean.

At my current startup I’ve been able to grow my career by growing my responsibilities. That’s one of the big perks of joining a small startup and sticking around while it grows. When I got here I said “I want to own that, and that, AND that.” I demonstrated that I was capable. So my career took off.

With all this responsibility, I learned about management. Baptism by fire, as some call it. I’m not just talking about managing employees, but also projects, time, priorities and deadlines. I’ve found management as a whole an extremely fascinating area to study in the startup ecosystem. At my current startup we have many great managers… ranging from the executive level, to interns. Yes, interns can be great managers too.

I’m not saying management is for everyone… in fact I’ve found some of the smartest people around me truly struggle with managing others, projects or time. But for those that are contemplating getting more involved in management… or want to sharpen their managerial skills… here’s my two cents. This is my startup management 101 playbook.

Three areas of focus… managing projects, time and people.

Managing projects

The first hurdle in becoming a great manager is project management. In reality, everyone from individual contributors to CEO’s should learn how to be a great project manager. I have three suggestions:

  1. Set expectations/deadlines early. This is important for a few reasons. You want to have your priorities straight, and you want to have your stakeholder’s expectations set appropriately. Make sure to give yourself enough time for a few fuck ups along the way.

  2. Remain organized and keep communication open the entire length of the project. For instance, don’t let too much time go between updating your boss. Even if things are going great, keep everyone in the loop.

  3. Divide and conquer. Sounds simple, but so many people struggle with divvying up work and allotting time for each assignment.

Managing time

I can’t overstate this. Managing your time at a startup is crucial to success. Not just individual success, but also company success. Especially for software startups: most of a software startup’s overhead is the cost of talent. Yet there usually isn’t someone standing over your shoulder making sure you’re spending each second of the day wisely. The #1 asset your startup is burning cash on is you.

There are many time hacks out there. But the overall things I’ll suggest:

  1. Manage your to-do list by priority.

  2. Keep your communication channels limited (the fewer the better). Use email, project management software and instant messaging, or email, instant messaging, and a pad of paper with daily to-dos. Whatever you pick, just don’t create too many ways your team communicates with you. The fewer, the easier it is to pay attention.

  3. Create routines that institute good time management. Meaning, you have time scheduled each morning to catch up on email or check your project’s backlog. Block off a few hours each week so you don’t get pulled into meetings. Huddle with your team for 10 minutes each morning to update each other on progress. You don’t have to do a lot. Just figure out what works for you.

  4. Don’t micromanage your time. Keep chunks of time open, don’t fill your schedule up with meetings, progress updates and hour-by-hour work tasks. Unexpected things that require your full attention will come up, they always do. 

  5. Don’t accept every meeting request; don’t set up meetings for everything. So many things can be done with email, instant message, or a five minute sit down next to a colleague’s desk. When you set up a meeting for 30 minutes that ends up really taking 5 minutes... You’ve most likely ruined the other 25 minutes, because it’s not time back, it’s a 5 minute interruption that halted your rhythm.

Managing people

This is the tough one. There are so many things I recognize in the great managers I’ve had, that cannot be taught. But there's one common denominator I want to address. The single greatest characteristic in a manager is empathy. Leaders that identify, communicate and become action oriented around the needs of their team are successful leaders. By “successful” I mean they get results: team productivity, meet their sales quotas, revenue growth, whatever.

When I say “identify, communicate and become action oriented around the needs of their team” I mean this:

100% of the time an empathic manager will be able to:

  1. Identify or foresee a problem, a struggle or high performance in their employee

  2. Communicate or recognize the appropriate response to the employee

  3. Take action to correct an issue that resolves the situation or honor great work which motivates the employee

Obtuse manager don’t make it very far. No one wants to work for a manager that doesn’t understand them, treat them well or recognize their successes. 

Other things:

  • Regularly hold 1:1 meetings with your employee. Here’s a great resource on mastering the 1:1 meeting. TL;DR:  A 1:1 is an agenda-free meeting with two-way communication between manager and employee.

  • Don't beat around the bush. Understand that realistic feedback is essential for your employee's success and your own. Your employee is, after all, a reflection of you.

  • Don’t be the coach on the sideline, but instead the captain of the team. You’ll garner more respect running around the field with your team than yelling from the sideline. You can’t always be out on the field as the manager, but try to be as much as you can.


What suggestions do you have? What advice have you received about startup management? Comment below.