How to control a lead investor/advisor from burning out your team?

Early/seed stage startup with successful round, the biggest problem is our advisor/board member! He’s very hands-on and overall a great critic in improving our product but he has the MOST RIDICULOUS schedules in the world. Things that would take a seasoned developer months to build, is reduced to a 7 day turnover on top of our normal production schedule. It’s gotten to the point that my team is burning out and exhausted sick, we have to keep a fully stocked med kit and my CTO is verging on a nervous breakdown.

How do we pushback without offending him? He’s genuninely helpful and gives great feedback, without him we wouldn’t have managed to develop so quickly. On the other hand he doesn’t seem to understand the order of magnitude he’s asking for and it’s beginning to cause everyone to crack.

  • The behavior you describe is clearly abusive towards your employees, and yet you’re more concerned about his feelings than with stopping the abuse? Hmm!

    Anyway, the solution is easy: tell the investor that you want him to deal with you directly and that you don’t want him to give orders to your team. If the investor is already working through you, then it’s you who’s setting the unreasonable schedule for your team, but you’re failing to take responsibility for it. You’re blaming the investor for the orders you’re giving to your team.

    You’re absolutely entitled to set boundaries with your investors/advisors. So make it clear that your team is close to burning out and that you need to avoid that at all costs. Tell him that you blame yourself for not noticing how hard you were pushing the team. Just communicate honestly and the investor won’t be offended.

    • He doesn’t give orders to the team, me and my co-founder have been acting as buffers between him and the team.

      We actually mentioned that. We told him as politely as possible that team burnout was a risk, and he made a joke about hiring redbull engineers instead. It’s extremely difficult because he’s our lead investor in the round (therefore part of the board as well) and he isn’t a technical person. He doesn’t seem to know the order of magnitude of what he asks for, and expects an immediate turnaround because “startups should be fast and agile and quick to XYZ”

  • Don’t lose the power you have , even though it may not look or feel like you have any leverage over this man. Now’s the time to squash this thing.Revolt with a demanded 1 day shut down. Not much he can do, is there ?

    • that would be terribly unprofessional. in all honesty, his advice and strategy is sound and he is generally very helpful with connections and feedback — without him, we wouldn’t reach profitability as quickly.

      I’m just trying to get him to understand that while his strategy is sound, his schedules are not. He has no sense of how long it takes to build and test something.

  • I’ve never been afraid of hard work, I work so hard, that my advisors tell me to take a vacation. So what I’m about to say, may not work for you, but it’s the truth.

    First, if you have delivered something that would take 7 months in 7 days, you’re continually setting you and your team up for failure. As the leader, you need to communicate with both your advisor and your team. I have people on my team now that won’t be for long because they take 2 days to deliver 2 hours of work. I also have members that stay up until 4am to get projects in before deadlines. The ones most likely not to be cut are the ones willing to go the furthest. While I hate the idea of them staying up that late, I know that if I need something in 5 days, I tell them 8 so they don’t do that. Does this mean I’m a bad boss or working my team to the bone? No. This means, I am testing my teams limits, commitment, and ability to drive on their own. I don’t want someone on my team who thinks funding means an 8 hour work day when milestones haven’t been hit. Funding means making every dollar count and getting the biggest return on investment…

    So back to my point, how much time does it truly take to get stuff done? How much work can each person do in a 40-50 hour period? This is what your investor/advisor is trying to find out and instead of burning out your team, you need to tell him what is or isn’t possible. If you can do 7 months work in 7days, you are burning his dollars unnecessarily, but as a leader, you need to say to yourself, my team can do this truthfully in 3 weeks time, let me tell the advisor it will be done in 5-6 weeks. Then, go back and tell your team 4 weeks is the deadline.

    If they are all getting equity, they shouldn’t have a problem with this. They should expect this.

    Your investor/advisor isn’t in this on a day to day, they think answers in terms of what they’ve heard or seen in Fortune magazine. They don’t know or understand what it’s like to be in your trench, they just know they have invested time and money for you to succeed and expect you to do just that.

    You are the team leader. Know your team’s limits and speak up for them. Talk to your CTO and tell them they have to maximize efforts and ask what that looks like.

    I’ve been at heavily funded multi-million dollar startups where the team was never pushed and the startup failed because the workers were treated like bees. Do enough to get the honey and go home. The CTO was working on his own company at the same time. If all that effort was brought together to continuously innovate, create new products, etc. the company would have made it. I’ve also been in an environment where everyone was burnt out because there was only the push to create without new customer development. They failed fast, had a lot of turnover, and eventually ran out of money. It is up to you to find the balance and act on it.

    Don’t be afraid to speak up for your team, but also don’t be afraid to call them on their shit.

    • hi OP here – thanks so much for your response. we pushed back a little on the investor, and he actually told us he was waiting for this (!) as a kind of test to see whether we understood the capabilities of our team without blindly agreeing to everything.

      the team was already working hard, but seeing you write things out so clearly made me realize things the way i haven’t seen before. thank you for your advice.

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