How to make headcount reductions without killing your company

A friend of mine forwarded me an interesting article from Wharton about how companies are thinking through headcount reductions, pointing out how CEOs and boards in smaller companies frequently have more flexibility in how they reduce headcount.

Headcount reductions in startups are tricky; it’s an exercise in figuring out “what level of success can I still create with fewer of us” – you’re lowering the growth rate from some high double digit number to a lower double digit number – by other measures, this is still great growth.

Yet, in a small company, the people create the whole alchemy of the culture that is such a big factor in success, you don’t want to fatally harm that. At the same time, running out of cash will be fatal too. So, to conserve cash you’ve got to reduce heads. Here are five ways to do this without killing the company and its culture.

· Establish a planning horizon. If you know you can’t get to cash flow positive soon, then the planning timeframe is “when you do you think you can and should raise money” which is a guess about when the vc industry will get back to normal and a guess about what the operating milestones you’ll need to hit to get someone to invest. You want to end up with end up with as much cash as possible (in case you’re wrong about the planning horizon), or enough to fund the company to a sale (if the business isn’t on a path to recover the original growth projections/potential).

· Assess the horizon’s environment. This is both the environment you think you’ll be operating within, and your ability to operate reliably within the environment. Be sober about what expectations you have around revenue, customer acquisition, and product development. But make sure you keep the right core set of people who can sell to and support customers, and keep product development moving forward. You can’t afford to be very wrong here. If you miss your revenue targets, all of a sudden your cash-out date can come rushing at you like a locomotive.

· View this as an opportunity, sort-of. Headcount reductions are an opportunity to apply a scalpel to underperforming businesses/functions/people, and can be a productive means for clearing out roles or functions that were already identified as being questionable. So while these cuts are hard to make, they end up not being surprising. A lot of times companies convert full time employees to contractors, which is easier for a startup to do than for a big public company.

· Size the magnitude of the expense reduction. In a startup, this number is arrived at through equal parts art and science. You need to be thinking about your math around preserving the essence of your culture, keeping enough forward momentum for key initiatives (sales, products), and retaining who holds the most DNA relative to those initiatives. Iterate (a lot) with your CFO or Controller and you’ll get a feel for whether the number is 15%, 20%, 25% or more.

· Don’t do this in a bubble, think empathetically. To me, the most thought provoking sentence in the article was this one: “(Headcount reductions are) driven by the executives’ view of the way things work, and the executives, frankly, think that everyone thinks like them.” The discussion and thinking done by the board and the CEO needs to be done cognizant of the tradeoffs and values of the employees. What will work for them, and for the company.

This is as much about embracing the fact that much is unknown, and there is tremendous value in iterating, combining thoughtful intuition with data-driven analysis, and giving yourself the freedom to think outside your personal point of view.  Headcount reductions are in a sense, meaningful failures, perhaps of the macroeconomic conditions, perhaps of your own making, but from these unpleasant circumstances, value can be created, and opportunities siezed.

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