When a company gets founded, it does so by a bunch of “missionaries”. Founders seldom are in it solely for the money (though that is obviously one big reason they are there). They found companies because they are “missionary” about the purpose that the company wants to achieve (it doesn’t matter what this mission is – it varies from company to company).
As they start building the company, they look for more missionaries to help them to do it. Rather, among early employees, there is a self selection that happens – only people who are passionate about the mission (or maybe passionate about the founders) survive, and those in it for other purposes just move on.
And this way, the company gets built, and grows. However, there comes a point when this strategy becomes unsustainable. A largish company needs a whole different set of skills from what made the company large in the first place. And some of these skills are specialist enough that it is not going to be easy to attract employees who are both good at this specialisation and passionate enough about the company’s mission.
These people look at their jobs as just that – jobs. They are good at what they do and capable of taking the company forward. However, they don’t share the “mission”, and this means to attract them, you need to be able to serve their “needs”.
For starters, they demand to be paid more. Then, they need the recognition that the job is just a job for them – they need their holidays and “benefits” and “work life balance” and decent working hours and all that. These are things people who are missionary about the business don’t necessarily need – the purpose of the mission means that they are able to “adjust”.
The choice to move from a missionary organisation to a more “mercenary” organisation (not just talking of money here, but also other benefits and perks) needs to be a conscious one from the point of view of the company. At some point, the company needs to recognise that it cannot run on missionary fuel alone and make changes (in structure and function and what not) to accommodate mercenaries and let them grow the business.
The choice of this timing is something a lot of companies don’t get right. Some do it too late – they try to run on missionary fuel for way longer than it is sustainable, and then find it impossible to change culture. This leads to a revolving door of mercenaries and the company unable to leverage their talents.
Others – such as Twitter – do it way too early. One thing that seems to be clear (to me) from the recent wave of layoffs at the company, and also having broadly followed the company for a long time (I’ve had a twitter account since 2008), is that the company “went professional” too early.
There was a revolving door of founders in the initial days, until Jack Dorsey came back to run the company (apart from running Square) for a few years. This revolving door meant that the company, from its early days, was forced to rely on professional management – mercenaries in other words. Over a period of time, this resulted in massive bloat. The company struggled along until Elon Musk came in with an outlandish bid and bought it outright.
From the commentary that I see on twitter now, what Musk seems to be doing is to take the company back to “missionaries”. Take his recent letter for example. He is demanding that staff “work long hours at high intensity“. A bunch have resigned in protest (in addition to last week’s layoffs).
The objective of all these exercises – abrasive management style, laying off half the people first, and then putting onerous work conditions on the rest – is to simply weed out all the mercenaries. The only people who will agree to “work long hours at high intensity” will be “missionaries” – people who are passionate about growing the company and will do what it takes to get there.
Musk’s bet, in my opinion (and based on what I’ve read elsewhere), is that the company was massively overstaffed in the first place, and that there is a sufficient quorum of missionaries who will stay on and take the company forward. The reason he is doing all this in public (using his public twitter account to give instructions to his employees, for example) is the hope that these actions might attract potential missionaries from outside to beef up the staff.
I have no clue if this will succeed. At the heart of it, a 16 year old company wanting to run on missionaries only doesn’t make sense. However, given that the company had been listing (no pun intended), this might be necessary for a temporary reboot.
However, one thing I know is that this needs to be an “impulse” (in the physics sense of the term). A short and powerful jab to move the company forward. At an old company like this, running on missionaries can’t be sustainable. So they better fix the company soon and then move it on a more sustainable mercenary path.