At a gathering of pre-IPO companies and investors, three CEOs of so-called “Unicorn” companies share their tips.
The “Unicorn” party may be peaking, but the reality is that there are still plenty of tech startups with sky-high valuations. (Unicorn is Silicon Valley-speak for companies valued at $1 billion or more.) Three of these software startups took the stage at Morgan Stanley’s recent NextGen conference for private tech companies and institutional investors, to discuss the ups and downs of growing a company and share some of the lessons they’ve learned along the way. Here are the highlights from the conversation, which included Keith Krach, CEO of DocuSign; Jyoti Bansal, founder of AppDynamics; and Stewart Butterfield, founder and CEO of Slack:
1. Employees need to know that this won’t last forever. Most of us know that what goes up must come down, but young engineers at many of today’s hottest tech companies expect 20% to 30% annual pay increases, according to Slack’s Butterfield. “It’s difficult to impress on everyone that inevitably it will get harder,” he says. “I’m not a very old man, but I’ve been through enough of these cycles that I’m aware of what the flip side looks like.”
2. As companies scale and evolve, so too should their boards. More startups are staying private longer. But that doesn’t mean they should stick with an all-VC board until they go public. As they scale and expand their verticals, companies should add industry experts, not just investors, to their board. Says AppDynamics founder Bansal: “At some point this model has to evolve.”
3. Don’t outsource executive hires, even as your company grows. It takes a long time to recover from one bad executive hire. That’s why Docusign CEO Krach makes between 15 to 20 reference checks for each management team hire. It is time consuming but hugely important. Says Krach: “You can’t delegate that.”
4. Don’t expect work-life balance, at least while you’re in hyper-growth. “In a high-growth situation, there’s no way you can do it,” says AppDynamics CEO Bansal. (And yes, a trio of male business leaders at a Morgan Stanley conference was asked about how they find time to spend with family.) Bansal adds that since he can’t do long vacations he just takes more three-day breaks. Butterfield, a philosophy major, now only finds time to read Twitter. And Krach says he married “above” himself so he doesn’t have to make any decisions at home.
5. Stick to one job. What do the three business leaders think about Jack Dorsey taking on the CEO role at both Twitter and Square? When asked, they don’t seem too enthused. “Personally, I just can’t imagine having my head so deep in two companies,” says Butterfield. The lesson: Start multiple companies, just not at the same time.