Where are you compromising? - Mark MacLeod

July 10, 2020 - Mark MacLeod

Where are you compromising?

Compromise: Noun. Examples: settle a dispute by mutual concession. Accept standards that are lower than is desirable.

Compromising is a natural part of life. We do it every day. We do it in our personal lives. We do it at work. It is, in many ways, an unavoidable consequence of collaborating with others. We all have our own likes, dislikes, priorities, etc. Compromise helps align people so that we can move forward together.


In your quest to build a highly valuable company, compromises can be like cancer cells. They start out small and inconsequential. But left unaddressed, they can be fatal.

The list of compromises that show up in most startups is seemingly endless. Here are just a few of the more common ones:

A co-founder that is no longer cutting it: At the beginning everyone is full of energy and zeal. All in. Over time, some founders grow with their companies, becoming more and more capable and valuable. Others don’t.

All too often, I have seen companies with three founders, one of whom is basically an individual contributor (yet owning the same equity as the others). This is de-motivating for everyone.

The product is good, not great: In your rush to get to market you cut corners. You built to launch, not to scale. The founder is no longer allowed to submit code, but a bunch of legacy spaghetti code is there. Do you stop feature innovation and refactor? Or do you plug your nose and keep going?

You don’t have the best leadership team: As CEO, the single highest-leverage thing you can do is build, then support and enable the strongest leadership team possible given your stage and resources. All too often though companies compromise here. They dole out C level titles way too early.

Many founding CEOs are threatened by truly world class functional leaders. I get it. But this reflex will ultimately prevent you from winning.

Perhaps these examples resonate because you’re living one or more of them now. That’s ok. I guarantee you every startup has similar issues.

The Compromise Log

In the same way as your company tracks bugs, you can track compromises and then decide what to do about them.

Once/ day, or as you encounter them, note the compromise. Perhaps keep a simple google sheet where you note the date, compromise, functional area of it and severity level.

You can’t fix everything. This is why I suggest rating the severity. Regularly knock down the most severe compromises and watch how your energy (and the collective energy of your company) is transformed.

Compromises and Culture

Your company is full of smart people. People that notice everything. It is likely that they see the compromises that you see. If you do nothing about those compromises, you unwittingly create a cultural expectation that compromises are ok. This is the ultimate cancer. You will not win if this attitude spreads across your whole company.

Questions to consider

What compromises am I making at work? What am I tolerating?

Have I explicitly acknowledged them before?

How am I contributing to the impact that compromises are having on my company?

What compromises do I assume are widely known across the company? What message is that sending to my team?

What would the impact be if we knocked off the top 3 most severe compromises in the company?

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