Meetings Kill Startups

The first day on my first job at Nortel, a senior designer told me “the hardest part of the job is avoiding meetings.” I didn’t understand what he meant. Meetings are where important decisions are made. The important people go from important meeting to important meeting making these important decisions. I hoped to one day me one of these important people going to important meetings making important decisions.

Meetings have their place. Your startup is not one of those places. In fact, meetings can kill your startup.

Meetings are a great way to feel like you are doing something, making progress, without actually doing anything. In the early days of Distil, when we were building our first product, we had a distributed team. Once a week we met at a pub to go over what we needed to do the next week.

These meetings were great fun — we hung out, we got some food, we drank some beer. But they were not very useful. Most of the time we made excuses why things didn’t get done in the previous week. Or we came up with items that needed to be completed before we could start the real work. Sometimes we agreed that we needed to “research” a problem a bit more before work could begin. At their worst, we pointed fingers at each other because this piece of work couldn’t start until that piece of work was finished. These meetings almost doomed Distil from the beginning.

It wasn’t until we stopped getting together for meetings and started getting together to work that we made progress.

Meetings are also a great way to hide other problems, like a dysfunctional team. At one point in Distil, we had large churn within our development team. About half of our members were new and we had tight deadlines. Communication with in the team was breaking down. New team members didn’t feel comfortable holding veteran members accountable for their work. Veteran team members felt that newer team members didn’t “get” how the team worked.

So we started holding weekly team meetings. These meetings felt like air traffic control sessions. Lining up work to be done, who would do the work, facilitating. The hand off of work. And they were absolutely useless. At their best we would reach agreement on what had to be done, only to have the team fall back to their old ways afterwards. At their worst they turned into finger pointing sessions, with team members tossing blame around like a game of hot potato.

There’s one kind of meeting I find works great in startups. After all the work is done, the customer is signed, the VC check is cashed, get the team together and celebrate getting it done!

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