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Dirty Hands Build Great Startups

How can you value something if you don't know what's required to make it?

Aleksei Gurko/Shutterstock

When you’re starting a company from scratch, I believe that you need to get your hands dirty.

Without dirty hands, you lose touch, and you lose sight of what it actually takes to create, nurture and build an organization.

Or, to put it another way, how can you value something if you don’t know what’s required to make it?

And how can you expect your startup to impact and influence the world without fully surrendering to it, without embracing the whole experience?

It doesn’t matter where you are in your career — how old or how young you are. To get the most out of yourself, your team and your fledgling enterprise, you have to get your hands dirty.

Clean Hands Lead to Mistakes and Mediocrity

Unfortunately, I know many CEOs, industry leaders with a lot of power and influence, who can’t tell you how their business actually runs. They refuse to get their hands dirty, and this is exceedingly short-sighted, especially when it comes to hiring the right and best people, or evaluating team performance.

If you’re the CEO of a company and you want to bring aboard a new vice president of marketing, for example, how do you know if the person has the potential to be a good VP of marketing or a great VP of marketing?

Do you rely on their resume?

Do you lean on their references?

Do you totally trust your instincts?

Maybe those are decent indicators, but the best way to know is if you’ve gotten your hands dirty and done the job yourself at an earlier point in your company’s evolution. Then you know what’s hard about the job and what’s easy. Then you know whether the person you’re considering will be better at the job than you were — which is exactly what you want, and exactly how you build a great company.

Passionate and All-Encompassing Engagement, Interest and Involvement

Every time I talk about dirty hands, it usually triggers images of the work ethic for people. And, to some degree, that’s valid and true. But dirty hands isn’t really about blue collar or white collar. You can’t view it in literal terms. It’s about the startup ethos or, in my mind, a life ethos.

It’s a very vigorous and multifaceted concept that speaks to a passionate and all-encompassing interest, involvement, presence, engagement and curiosity — as opposed to apathy or detachment.

Sometimes, dirty hands shows up as a strong desire to learn or gain knowledge mastery, to understand how everything in an organization works.

Sometimes it means being there to support other people, to live in service to them, in the name of the company’s greater good.

But it frequently revolves around taking personal responsibility and ownership, and treating every situation as though the bucks stops with you.

Part of this is delegation versus abdication, a crucial component of the dirty-hands philosophy in startups.

A lot of people in early-stage companies think they’re delegating, but they’re really abdicating.

They tell a team member, “Go do this,” and they never follow up, thinking that their responsibility and ownership is over and done. That’s abdication, and it’s a cancer in startups.

Delegation, on the other hand, takes place when someone tells a team member, “Go do this,” and they follow up, verify, invest, upgrade and elevate. That’s the dirty-hands way.

You don’t have to delegate to get your hands dirty in a startup. If you see something that needs to be addressed, that needs to be fixed, just do it. Doers have dirty hands. They take responsibility and ownership for every aspect of the collaborative experience in an emerging company.

Idea Creation Isn’t Dedicated Company-Building

If you come up with an idea, that doesn’t mean you got your hands dirty. All of us have ideas every day. So that doesn’t signal that you’re especially engaged or involved.

But taking an idea and working it hard, plowing through all the problems that surround it, adapting it, iterating, heading toward an outcome — that’s what distinguishes the dedicated company builders with dirty hands — the craftsmen — from those who just think the thoughts.

In a programming context, the greatest software engineers I’ve ever met — the ones with the dirtiest hands — are fearless. They don’t have any attachment to the code they’ve created; and, if there’s a better way to go, they dive right in, attack, and just take it all apart and put it back together. If the product isn’t better, they just repeat the tear-down-and-build-up process until they get it right.

A Collaborative Struggle to Figure Things Out in New Ways

I got an even deeper sense of the dirty-hands philosophy last winter. I wanted to cut down a tree, and I needed an ax. So I found these guys who run a cooperative in the woods of Scandinavia.

When you order an ax from them, they go into the forest and custom-cut the wood for your handle. Then they return to the carpentry shop and start working the wood, subtly shaping it and getting it smoother and smoother. Meanwhile, they’re pounding and re-pounding the metal head and blade, folding and re-folding it, and always sharpening the edge.

If they don’t like what they’re creating, they throw it away and start all over again. They labor. They sweat. There’s constant iteration and reiteration. It’s a steady, wonderful and elegant symphony of back and forth between the artisans, who are working off of each other in near-perfect harmony.

But it’s also a dirty-hands process. And what it produces is truly sublime.

An ax isn’t software. Yet the hard-earned craftsmanship, the calloused hands, the nicks and the scratches, and the collaborative struggle to figure things out in new ways to achieve greatness as a group is glorious — whether it’s in Seattle, Silicon Valley or Scandinavia.

So that’s the poetry in the dirty-hands philosophy.

And if you blend poetry and pragmatism in just the right measure, I can promise you with great certainty and even greater clarity that your startup will grow and prosper over time.

Jordan Ritter is the founder and CEO of Ivy Softworks. As a co-founder of Napster, Cloudmark and Servio, his expertise within a diverse range of software architectures has helped create some of the Internet’s most well-known software. Reach him @jpr5.

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