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Adii Pienaar

Now working on Receiptful. Co-Founder & ex-CEO of WooThemes. Author of Brandiing. New Dad. Ex-Rockstar.

The Mothership is broken. And you can't fix it.

WooThemes has become a Mothership. A team of almost 20, more than 150 000 users and revenues / profits that most business owners would approve of. This is fantastic of course until the engine breaks, because I'm not necessarily able to fix the engine and neither are my co-founders.

See - as WooThemes has grown in the last 4 years, we've become this specialized unit and well-oiled machine. We've built out what started as a little (cyber)spaceship into an ominious mothership. We shaped & moulded the mothership according to our own strategic notions, market forces and popular demands from our users. The mothership is unrecognizable from the spaceship it was when we first launched it into space in 2007.

How Things Change

When my co-founders & I founded WooThemes, it was representative of our personalities, ambitions, personal cash reserves and of course: our skills.

4 years later, WooThemes only represents our personalities and ambitions (individual & combined). Our personal cash reserves aren't necessary anymore (as the business has its own now), but the important thing is that the WooTeam has grown to such an extent that the collective skills now eclipses our own as co-founders.

I remember and can identify 4 stages in this regard on our journey:

  • Founding WooThemes: As co-founders, we were all hands-on-deck and our DIY approach meant that we did everything ourselves.
  • Hiring our first team members: When we added the first members to our time, we did so to add capacity. Their skills mirrored our own, which meant that if they weren't around, one of the co-founders could still handle things.
  • The second wave of hires: Similarly to our first hires, these were focused on extending our capacity as well. But we were starting to add individuals that could offer us a little bit extra ito their unique skills. Still though, 90% of what was going on in Mothership could be handled by the co-founders.
  • Today: We're a specialized unit; internally & externally. Our products are more advanced and the glue that holds it all together takes some skilled maintenance. As co-founders, we can't do everything ourselves anymore and have to rely on individual team members to fix the engine if it's broken.

Managing Chaos When You're Out of Your Depth

Fred Wilson has been publishing a fantastic, series of posts on ["The Management Team"](When You Can't Fix The Mothership's Engine Anymore) in the last couple of weeks. This has caused me to spend more time thinking about what our management team looks like and how we've applied that within the context of not having all the skills to directly address every part of our business anymore.

These are the things that we've focused on:

  • Surround yourself with great people. Hire only the best / most promising individuals and never compromise on that mantra.
  • Trust in your team's individual & combined skills. Empower them to apply those skills whether you are around or not.
  • Create a culture that fosters initiative, failure and learning. Rather have a team member take initiative (based on the trust you put in them), then sit around waiting for you to give the go-ahead to fix the server that's been down for 6 hours already. If they fuck up, move on and make sure that they (and you) learn from the experience.
  • Create an environment where team members want to do their best. Whether that means buying them the best tech gadgets or painting the wall another shade of blue, just do it. People do more when they feel they belong.
  • Give individuals ownership, meaning they get all the praise & criticism for the project / task that they've taken ownership for. People are bound to work harder for themselves than they would for any boss.

Lastly… As business owner, learn to sit back, relax and realize that even if you wanted to fix the engine yourself, you either don't have the time or the skills. The only way for you to do so, is support the team that you hired to look after the engine in the first place. :)

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