The Sickest Startup

We are launching polySpectra’s first product at the Cyclotron Road Demo Day next week, and I couldn’t have made a bigger mistake. On Sunday I felt a little bit ‘low energy’, but at the time it was barely noticeable. On Monday morning I was really tired, but it was Monday morning. I told my team I’d be fine after another cup of coffee. By Monday afternoon I realized it was not getting better and I needed to go home and lie down. Too late. With five people crammed into an office meant for one, the seeds of destruction had already been sown. Days from launch, I’m finally starting to feel better, but now a significant fraction of my team is sick. Poop emojis all around.

This humbling reminder of mortality inspired me to share a few of the things I’ve learned on organizational resiliency over the last few years. Because we have a very small team on very interdisciplinary projects, we’ve had to invest in a number of strategies to keep things rolling when different individuals are down for the count. Here are a few of the big ones:

Cross Training - I thought it was really funny when Gene Berdichevsky of Sila Nanotechnologies asked me if I knew any ‘athletes’. They were hiring engineers & chemists - I was confused. I guess I wasn’t in team sports long enough to understand that ‘an athlete’ is someone that can play wherever the coach needs them. But of course Gene was right. Through the process of building out the polySpectra team, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of well-rounded technical skills over deep expertise in a single area. (Last two positions? 1.Data scientist 2.Product chemist. Hired!) As projects, processes and personnel are constantly shifting - it’s important for a scientific startup team to be adaptable.

This brings me to cross-training. Above, the context of ‘the athlete’ was prior experience; now, we’re going to talk about building ‘athleticism’ into the team’s ongoing projects and activities. One morbid term to quantify the organizational resilience of a team is the ‘bus count’: the number of people that can be hit by a bus without sinking the company. Startups have very low bus counts, unfortunately. Baseball teams have multiple pitchers, a big bench, a high bus count. They intentionally decide when to rest and when to match up a specific pitcher to a specific opponent. If you can’t afford to have multiple pitchers, you better teach your left-fielder how to pitch, and probably your first-basewoman too.

Wouldn’t it be faster to staff to the task? Cheaper? More productive? The bottom line is that shit happens. Overly optimized systems are fragile. Resiliency necessitates redundancy, which is by definition ‘wasteful’. Read Taleb if you’re not convinced. In my view, you’re better off investing time in cross-training and organizational redundancy than keeping every all-star solely in their position of excellence to optimize productivity. I would argue this is true at organizations of any size, because one day the bus comes and you don’t have anyone else in your company who knows how to do that job. Don’t be the sickest startup.

Clear published guidelines on wellness - The following is from our former Director of Operations, Corinne Allen:

  1. There are many contagious illnesses that do not include a fever: Common cold, pinkeye, earache, gastroenteritis.
  2. You’re sicker than you think you are - so however ‘fine’ you feel, you’re worse than that. Humans are notoriously awful at self evaluation; especially if you’re under the weather.
  3. You don’t know the state of everyone else’s immune system. What you think is ‘fine’ may derail someone else’s health. Unkind and unnecessary.
  4. If you have a fever or had a fever, do not come to work until you have been fever free for 24 hours. That’s the rule for elementary school. That’s the rule here.
  5. Remember - You’re more contagious at the beginning, before you feel awful.
  6. If you come to work ill, not only are you not doing your best on the job, and may ultimately end up missing a few days, but getting someone else sick means you have now compounded the issue.
  7. If you stay home, remember to update the team and let people know if you’re ‘dead to the world’ sick or just at home and available for communications.

Sources: here. here.

This only works if you build a culture that enforces it. Send each other home when your peers are overconfident about their own health. Yesterday my team wouldn’t let me stop by the lab even though I thought I felt better. They were right, I wasn’t better. We jumped on video chat instead.

Quick Wellness Check-ins - I learned the ‘stoplight’ game from my friend Johnny, the CEO of Qwil. At an all-hands standup meeting, everyone takes turns sharing whether they are red, yellow, or green. For polySpectra, this happens every Monday morning. We have a policy that the respondent need not give any context or explanation for their state. It is meant to be an ‘overall’ score, including mental, physical, and emotional aspects of the individual’s wellbeing. Often, people will choose to share a one-sentence reason if they are red or yellow, but is important to move quickly and not turn this into a team therapy session. As a manager, this provides an invaluable snapshot into the wellbeing of the team. If there is a clear trend or someone is really red, I know that it is time to investigate further.

Practice Absence for Key Roles - We recently said goodbye to polySpectra’s first employee, Corinne Allen, when she left to start her AAAS Fellowship working for the highly impactful Tech To Market Office of the Department of Energy. (We’re super proud.) As much of a bummer as it was to see her go, it was also our first opportunity as a company to practice losing someone. On the day she decided to accept the offer, I told her that from then on, her job was to automate or delegate every aspect of her job until she was completely bored. If that wasn’t possible, then her job would be to hire her replacement. One month before she left, we made her hide for a week and not respond to anyone, to stress test the new systems that she had put in place. The team simply noted every time they realized they couldn’t do something without her, and we fixed those gaps when she returned the following week. We didn’t catch everything, as I’ve had to annoy her a few times since her departure, but I think that on the whole we did a good job with the transition. The key learning experience for me was the importance of intentionally practicing for absence. Try it while people are on vacation, try it to force someone to actually take a vacation, whatever it takes to decrease your bus count.

I was going to include a bunch of health and wellness tips in this post as well, but since I’m still sick after five days of sleeping and feel like an idiot for infecting my team, that seems pretty hypocritical. I think I’ll save it for another day.