Startups Are Tribal – Are You A Shaman Or A Hunter?

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A version of this article previously appeared on Forbes.

Startups, much like ancient tribes, are comprised of a small number of people who band together to battle a cruel, hostile world. Like the tribe, a nascent venture’s survival is precarious and never guaranteed. Success requires everyone applying their specialized skills in concert toward the group’s common good.

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Tribes were effective societal structures, lasting over 2.5 million years. Tribes and startups thrive when labor is efficiently divided. Long before Meyers met Briggs, people in tribal communities migrated to those roles which best suited their personalities, proclivities and skills. The key roles in tribes and startups are: Hunter, Skinner, Shaman, Chief and Tribal Elder.

Understanding a successful tribe’s simple organizational structure provides insights into the personality types that should be present on your team during your startup’s formative years. To this end, in partnership with Intuit, I created a series of startup videos that have generated over 100,000 views, including one in which I discuss the tribal aspects of startups.

Hunter

  • Work hard
  • Driven to do right thing
  • Fast and furious
  • Under communicate - do not like to confer with or answer to the group
  • Excel under pressure
  • Emphasis on achieving goals - second guess their tactics at your peril
  • Deliver quantity over quality - close enough is okay
  • Work well outside the box

The Hunter provides for the tribe and literally brings home the bacon. These individuals are highly autonomous, independent and thrive on frequent recognition. When they have a successful hunt, they want everyone to know about it.

The Hunter is generally not a visionary. However, once they are pointed in the right direction, they are clever enough to improvise a tactical plan to achieve a strategic objective. They do not want to be told how to take the hill, just which hill needs to be taken.

At your venture, the hunter is the rainmaker, in the form of a Business Development Executive, VP of Sales or Corporate Development Officer. Once they are told the type of deal that is needed, they are capable of autonomously devising the appropriate tactics to get the deal done.

Skinner

  • Work correctly
  • Driven to do things the right way
  • Slow and careful
  • Service oriented - want to meet stakeholders’ needs within the organization
  • Over communicate - encourage meetings and agreement regarding goals
  • Quality over quantity - do things “by the book”
  • Work inside the box - excel within predefined guidelines 

The Skinner makes the Hunter look good. When the Hunter brings back the kill, it is the Skinner who dresses the meat, tans the hides and preserves whatever is not initially eaten for the tribe to subsist upon during lean times.

The Skinner at your venture will likely take the form of the VP of Operations, VP of Professional Services or Chief Operating Officer. They ensure that your company delivers on the Hunters’ promises by exceeding your partners’ and customers’ expectations.

Shaman

  • Work differently
  • Creative visionary
  • Communicate differently - requires careful listening
  • Seek a better way
  • Create quickly and freely
  • Tripped up by details
  • Prone to devise complicated solutions
  • Prize a solution’s technical elegance over its functionality
  • Are unaware that a box exists

Shamans invent new tools and processes that improve the overall quality of life within the tribe. For instance, the Shaman will spend his days thinking of a better fishhook, a new tool for cleaning skins or searching for new medicinal plants to cure the tribe’s ailments.

At your venture, the Shaman is often the Founder. They may also take the form of Chief Technical Officer, VP of Engineering or VP of Product. By whatever name, the Shaman is the person who devises and develops the innovations upon which your business is based.

Chief

  • Work together
  • Shepherd the team toward its strategic goals
  • Slow and connected
  • Communicates clearly and supportively
  • Driven to maintain cohesion within the team
  • Indecisive
  • Prone to being railroaded
  • Defines the box

Every tribe needs a Chief, just like every venture needs a CEO. The Chief defines and communicates the tribe’s strategic direction, such as a new valley to forage or a mountain retreat to escape the heat of summer. The Chief listens to the opinions of the other tribal members, makes decisions that impact everyone and ensures an adequate level of acceptance of such decisions to facilitate their ultimate success.

One of the best (and most infuriating) CEO’s I worked with exhibited nearly all of the above characteristics. As a Hunter, I was frequently frustrated, as he was often slow to act. In his effort to keep harmony within the team, he seemingly agreed with everyone, even people who held diametrically opposed opinions.

In retrospect, I now realize that his ability to sincerely empathize with everyone’s respective positions, especially on difficult issues, was imperative in keeping our key executives effectively working in harmony during the tumultuous challenges we frequently encountered on our road to a successful exit.

One of his favorite sayings frustrated me at the time, but I now appreciate its underlying wisdom, “Some of the best decisions I ever made were the decisions I never made.” Despite my Hunter-driven frustration at his hesitancy, more often than not, his resistance to making a snap decision proved to be prudent.

Tribal Elder

  • Hardly works
  • Thoughtful, caring
  • Experienced but not smug
  • Egoless
  • Provocateur - challenges, cajoles, encourages
  • Looks into the box, provides high-level perspective

Tribal Elders spend their time sitting by the fire dozing and recounting the tribe’s history. They cannot be counted on to do any heavy lifting nor are they in a position to execute the day-to-day tasks necessary for the tribe to thrive. However, they occasionally offer bits of sage advice that allow the tribe to avoid hardships and reap windfalls.

At your venture, the Tribal Elders are represented by your Board of Directors and Advisors. Ideally, they have varied and broad business histories upon which to draw. They may be able to provide general guidance at certain pivotal points during your venture’s journey. However, never heed their advice blindly, as it is impossible for them to have your level of insight into the operational details of your venture.

Which Roll Is The Most Important?

All of them and none of them.

Without the Hunter, the Shaman’s ideas would never be put into practice. Likewise, without the Skinner, much of the Hunter’s efforts would be wasted. He might be able to feed himself, but he would not be able to sustain the tribe on his own.

Without the Shaman, neither the Hunter nor the Skinner would have the tools necessary to carry out their respective roles within the tribe. Without the Chief, the tribe would wander aimlessly, fighting among itself until the group eventually dispersed and the individual members were melded with other tribes with healthier cultures and a more focused sense of direction.

Balance is the key to a successful team. Thus, every member of your venture’s core team is the most important member. Respect mankind’s evolution and heed the tribal lessons of old. If you do, you may just end up on top of your industry’s food chain.

You can follow John’s startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse.

Photo Credit: Daniel Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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