Builders and Guardians

There are 10 types of people in every company: the Builders and the Guardians. This is an oversimplification of course, I don’t want to go all hexadecimal on you. Let me illustrate by example.

It’s day one in the life of your startup FourGramPin. There is something you want to build. Maybe you have some scattered ideas or prototypes, but now you are serious about this. You and your cofounder rolll up your virtual sleeves and start building stuff.

At the same time, in galaxy three freeway exits away:

It’s day six thousand in the life of a large, public corporation. The company has a steady, profitable line of business. It’s been a long time since it developed its last significant product, these days most innovations come in through acquisitions. However, this company has a lot to lose should anything go wrong. For example, an hour of site downtime can cost a million dollars. Many people here must act like Guardians.

The large corporation was a startup once (although it may not remember it). It needed no guardians, just builders. Over the years guardians started to become necessary: the site crashes too often, they build a dedicated ops team. People push crappy code to production, they implement release engineering. Redundant clusters over the world. The site is too slow, a team optimizes the hell out of the backend. I could go on, if you ever worked for a large web company you know what I’m talking about. One challenge every tech company faces as it grows is finding the right balance between Builders and Guardians.


Some of us are more interested in the Builder role. We like to hack something, see if people want it, iterate, get others on board, and get it to a point where it kinda works. Sure, it’s not ultra-reliable, there are countless ways to crash it, obvious bugs have not been discovered yet. Still, we’re happy let others take over while we go build something new.
Other people are can be happy in either role. They were the builders of the product so they see it as their baby. They won’t let go so easily, and they want to make sure to be around as it matures. Perhaps they can get a bit possessive, like Pink Floyd’s mother. I’m thinking of how Jerry Yang couldn’t let go of Yahoo when possibly the best thing for the company was to be acquired by Microsoft.


Some are more comfortable as Guardians. In a large organization Guardians can wield significant power. A competent Guardian will get resources: people, money, hardware. Companies become risk-averse as they grow, and at some point Guardians are in charge. They own the short term, especially if the company is public and must report its numbers every quarter. Sometimes things go to shit quickly:


The end of the quarter is looming, someone finds out your CEO’s resume says he was King of Scotland once, armies of patent drones can be seen on the horizon. Your elastic cloud platform just had a 24-hour outage because you were hacked by Ukrainian ninja rockstar turtles, and Techcrunch is beating you while you’re down. Right now, you need someone like this:



Still, Builders are crucial for the long term. Problem: many companies don’t seem to understand this, so they don’t make an effort to keep builders happy. This is why Yahoo has been suffering a neverending exodus of people desperate to start a new project somewhere. Do you think Young Einstein would be a good fit for Yahoo today? Maybe they should rename themselves to Global Web Estate Properties or something. The “Yahooness” is gone.


My own anecdotal observation suggests that tech companies do better when the original builders stick around because they are still passionate about their creation: Larry and Sergey, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos. Steve Jobs came back to save the day, still hungry and foolish (perhaps too foolish for his own good, that would be a different post).


Committed founders enjoy creating new things, and they are invested in the long term. They are in the best position to know when to act like a builder or a guardian. It doesn’t seem the case with Jerry Yang and David Filo, and it’s hard to know why. Maybe they are Guardian types who lucked out? From what I know, Yahoo has been a revolving door for Guardians who have been adept at keeping the core business and the brand alive. Make no mistake, this is no small feat. It’s not sexy though, so the best the tech press can do with it is present it as a soap opera.


Is there a moral to all this? I have no data so this is pure speculation on my part, but I think that the dynamics between Builders and Guardians could be one of the most important predictors of the long-term prospects of a company. If Guardians dominate, There Will Be Boredom (and ultimately, death by a thousand startups).



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