The importance of attracting and retaining high-quality people is a recurrent theme in the media:tech sector and key to building long-term value.
But in addition to the quality of the individuals, the structure of the overall team is also key – its split between product/service or engineering people, salesman, account managers, general management and so on – and is often overlooked until it becomes a problem.
Great people – in the wrong place?
Too many people in the wrong roles will reduce the attractiveness of the business to potential acquirers – often in a surprisingly abrupt way.
This creates something of a challenge for the senior team as they have to make difficult decisions about recruitment and where to in invest scarce resources.
Salesmen drive growth – but not product/service development
Hungry for growth, it’s natural to invest in the sales team – drivers of new revenue, low initial financial cost because they’re often on commission, should pay for themselves quickly, and so on.
But they often bring a different culture, a lack of deep technical understanding of the product, and a tendency to over-promise.
Managing current relationships – losing external focus?
Equally, client/customer retention is key, so the instinct might be to invest in account managers, relationship-led contact points which can ‘farm’ your current clients for more work.
But individuals who flourish in these roles often struggle to focus on growth and are loath to consider actions or changes which might jeopardise existing relationships – even if they’re in the best interests of the business as a whole. A culture dominated by relationship managers may become cosy, comfortable, internally-focused and insular.
Who does the actual work?
And of course, someone has to deliver on all the promises being made – the product/engineering team, the developers, the creatives. If you can’t follow through, there’s no point in building the sales pipeline or in deepening your current client relationships – you’ll simply be creating disappointment and frustration.
What acquirers are looking for?
Particularly in the tech and online segments, acquirers are looking more than anything else for talented and experienced engineers, developers and product people.
(This is driving the trend towards the “acqui-hire” – an acquistion premised solely on bringing in strong people, almost regardless of the product, service or market their current business targets.)
Many acquirers have explicit thresholds they apply to assessing any acquisition target – Facebook, for example, typically looks for engineers to make up well over 50% of total headcount.
Google has a similar approach, which it applies across the organisation – if the proportion of non-engineering staff creeps above the target level, it institutes a general hiring freeze for non-developers until the balance has been reset.
Shifting the balance
But you need salesmen and account directors (and managers, and an FD, etc.) so how can this be managed?
One approach which can be very successful is to align the product and account management functions into a single broader team. This helps the developers stay close to what the client/customer is actually asking for and what their day-to-day problems actually are. Some developers will naturally gravitate into more client-facing roles; others, less interested in that side of things, will need to be protected from unnecessary distraction so they can get on with the job.
Similarly, a small sales function working closely alongside the dev team will be more effective – and more attractive to acquirers – than a large sales team operating in isolation. Aligning the two also helps avoid your salesmen making promises the product or team can’t deliver.
Building in structures like this early, rather than retro-fitting them shortly before an exit process, will help reduce disruption and give you time to iron out any kinks which emerge.
As the business grows beyond its original small teams, this interdisciplinary approach can be hard to maintain – but by that stage an engineering-led culture responsive to client/customer feedback should be well-embedded in the organisation as a whole, and should provide a very solid foundation for rapid ongoing growth.