On the inside, every individual should be sharply distinguished by her work’.

KITSAP/BUSINESS—When assigning responsibilities to employees in a startup, you could start by treating it as a simple optimization problem to match talents with tasks efficiently. But even if you could somehow get this perfectly right, any given solution would quickly break down. Partly that’s because startups have to move fast, so individual roles can’t remain static for long. But it’s also because job assignments aren’t just about the relationships between workers and tasks; they’re also about relationships between employees.


The best thing they did by the manager at PayPal was to make every person responsible for doing just one thing. Every employee’s one thing was unique, and everyone knew he would evaluate him only on that one thing. The manager had started doing this to simplify the task of managing people. But then he noticed a more profound result: defining roles reduced conflict. Most fights inside a company happen when colleagues compete for the same responsibilities.

Startups face an exceptionally high risk of this since job roles are fluid at the early stages. Eliminating competition makes it easier for everyone to build the kinds of long-term relationships that transcend mere professionalism. More than that, internal peace is what enables a startup to survive at all; when a startup fails, we often imagine It succumbing to predatory rivals in a competitive ecosystem. But every company is also its ecosystem, and factional strife makes it vulnerable to outside threats. Internal conflict is like an autoimmune disease: the technical cause of death may be pneumonia, but the real reason remains hidden from plain view.


In the most intense kind of organization, members hang out only with other members. They ignore their families and abandon the outside world. In exchange, they experience intense feelings of belonging and maybe get access to esoteric “truths” denied to ordinary people. We have a word for such organizations: cults. Cultures of total dedication look crazy from the outside, partly because the most notorious cults were homicidal: Jim Jones and Charles Manson did not make good exits.


But entrepreneurs should take cultures of extreme dedication seriously. Is a lukewarm attitude to one’s work a sign of mental health? Is a merely professional attitude the only sane approach? The extreme opposite of a cult a consulting firm like Accenture: not only does it lack a distinctive mission of its own, but Individual consultants are regularly dropping in and out of companies to which they have no long-term connection.

Every company culture can be plotted on a linear spectrum.

The best startups might be considered slightly less extreme kinds of cults. The most significant difference is that cults tend to be fanatically wrong about something important. People at a successful startup are fanatically right about something those outside it have missed. You’re not going to learn those kinds of secrets from consultants, and you don’t need to worry if your company doesn’t make sense to conventional professionals. Better to be called a cult—or even a mafia.

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