6 Strategies to Motivate Startup Employees



How do the startup and corporate worlds differ? Let us count the ways.


Actually, since we’re in the business of actually getting stuff done, let’s do something more productive with our time.


Let’s review some tested and proven strategies to motivate startup employees — who, let’s not forget, are very different from employees of large, corporatized organizations.


Startup employees are dreamers, visionaries, big picture people — pick your cliche. They wouldn’t be working on a shoestring toward a highly uncertain future were they not capable of envisioning a reality that does not currently exist.


As their leader, it’s up to you to inspire that transformation. These seven strategies can help, if you’re so motivated to try them.


  1. Make It Worth Their While


Most startups are cash-poor. Even if you’re on the cusp of closing a major funding round, or flush off an infusion of cash from a private offering, your funds are likely already spoken for. On pure cash terms, you probably can’t afford to keep up with more established competitors. Or, if you can, it’s probably not in your best financial interest.


Fortunately, you have plenty of other incentives at your disposal. Nothing motivates like equity — the chance to lock in your 22nd-century starship’s value at 19th-century schooner prices. And that’s just one small example.


Spend some time studying best-practice perks and incentives for startup employees, compare what you can offer against what your startup and established competitors are already offering, and throw together a package that catches current and prospective employees’ attention.


  1. Inspire Them to Look Within


Give your employees something to think about — without forcing them to take their work home. Compile an inspirational reading or listening list replete with your favorite motivational texts, spiritual passages, quirky explainers — whatever you think will inspire your team to look within for that extra something. You might just be surprised by what they gain from the exercise.


  1. Bring Them Closer Together


Much-maligned team-building exercises might actually hold the key to a more productive startup workforce.


Most entrepreneurs mistakenly look at team-building as just another box to check, like filling out a W-2 or completing a performance review. (Performance reviews are a whole ‘nother story.)


Team-building work is not a rote exercise. It’s a vital aspect of what should be your ongoing effort to maximize your team’s potential. Put some thought into it. Better yet, designate an office party captain, team-building evangelist, or whatever you want to call them — and keep their portfolio full.


  1. Give Them a Mantra


Or at least a mission.


Even first-time entrepreneurs know that startup employees do better when they have a mission. They do even better when they feel like they’re part of a movement. It falls to you to convince your team that they are in fact part of a movement — or, failing that, spearheading a solution with the potential to change the world in some small (or not so small) way.


  1. Don’t Impose Artificial Deadlines


Think twice before imposing a deadline for the sake of imposing a deadline. You’re not as clever as you think, and many business experts believe you’re actively setting up your team for failure.


“[Deadlines are] artificial, and [while] they provide a stretch target, they are often negative in their impact,” writes David Cotgreave in CIO. “Deadlines driven by a financial bonus, a need to meet a year-end, or a commitment made in a board meeting…can serve no purpose other than provide a false measure against which to potentially fail.”


Schedule at your own risk.


  1. Take Some Time Out to Celebrate


You’re not a startup until you cater your team’s lunch daily.


Keeping your employees’ stomachs full through a full eight- (or ten-, or twelve-) hour day is great. Filling their souls after they’ve punched out for the day is much better.


Skip the standing happy hour — it gets old soon enough. Schedule less frequent, more memorable outings to commemorate company milestones: sales milestones, go-lives, demo days. Get everyone involved who wants to be involved, from the newest hire to the co-founder. Make them feel like they deserve to be there. And make it clear that they should savor the moment — no talking about the next milestone until you’re back in the office.


How are you motivating your startup’s employees? Have you tried any strategies that simply didn’t work?