(Author’s Note: This story begins with the death of a friend and mentor. It’s also about something I discovered just last week – unusual for a ‘wise old sage’ of the Australian tech startup community. Please be patient with me and promise me it will be worth your time.)
Last week I was on a sunny outdoor patio in a seaside pub, spending the afternoon with a small group of friends, family and colleagues of Jenny McDonald, who recently passed away after a long battle with breast cancer.
Jenny was someone I got to know early in my career, as she and her husband Tony Blackie co-founded a PR firm, Blackie McDonald, dealing with the tech industry, and for a few years, while transitioning from a career in technical journalism to a tech product management career, I worked as a PR consultant at Blackie McDonald.
This was in 1994-95 – a very long time ago. Many of the people there were also like me – people who had worked at Blackie McDonald for a few years who came to pay their respects because, despite an average tenure of only a few years for most of us, Jenny meant a huge amount for us .
Jenny was an exceptional professional, a capable businesswoman, generous, authentic and funny when the situation called for it. As a young member of her team, it was not difficult to like and respect her.
But in conversation with the other people who had worked for her, a theme emerged: Like me, they didn’t remember very well how unusual the hiring process was (it was traditional) or what it was like to work there (it was similar to other agencies), but what really stood out in everyone’s story was how Jenny and Tony had treated us when we left Blackie McDonald.
They were so good to us when we stopped.
You see, in PR (as in startups), when you leave the company, chances are that you’ll take a senior job with a rival outfit, or you’ll leave to set up your own rival outfit.
You could take clients with you (whether you plan to or not), you could poach colleagues (now or in the future), and you’ll almost certainly take everything unique and clever you’ve learned with you.
So it usually ends badly when you leave a PR agency (or a startup); words they might later regret, short emails sent with all the meaning between the lines, confidentiality and non-compete clauses waved in the face, maybe even lawyers at twenty paces. In the end, you never want to see each other again.
That’s a big mistake because you never know where people are going in their careers.
One of the people at Jenny’s retirement was now an internationally acclaimed pitch coach, another was APAC’s marketing director for a huge multinational software company, another was unicorn’s CEO. I would become… a popular contributor to Startup Daily!
Jenny was a class act. Not only did we trust her enough to tell her our future plans, she helped many of us screen the employer we were considering accepting an offer from.
She hired someone when their first outside job offer fell through, and accepted one of us back after just a six-month absence.
She helped me solve some of the problems I was having when setting up my own one-man outfit.
She introduced me to the company from whom I would eventually sublet office space. She took my calls when I was in trouble months later.
In the years that followed, we all counted on the support of Jenny and Tony. And in the years that followed, I repaid that debt as many times as I could, with client referrals, potential new hires, redress opportunities to pursue, and always, when people asked me which tech PR firms I really respected, Blackie McDonald top of my list.
Careers last for decades, and in a few decades, all that matters isn’t what they did (or you did), but how you felt.
So, here’s the point of the story:
At fast-growing startups, we all have people who work really hard to design great onboarding experiences for new hires. They get a nice box with goodies, a t-shirt and a trucker cap, some startup books, some snacks and drinks.
They might get an inspiring offsite or have lunch with the CEO.
They get an efficient and enjoyable introduction to the systems, processes and culture of the startup they just joined, all designed to ensure time to productivity is minimized. Fast-growing startups don’t have time to flound around until you find a way to add value.
It is absolutely worth investing in.
So you might be lucky enough to keep those new hires longer than their four or five-year hiring schedule, or you might not. But even if you keep them twice as long — a whole decade — when you hire young people, you’ve only kept them for a fifth of their entire career.
What are they going to do next?
Who will they become?
What power and influence will they exercise?
And will they remember how you got them on board after all this time? I doubt it.
But I can assure you that even 27 years later they will remember how you got them off the ship.
That’s a lot of years to pay you back.