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How to Be Both Indispensable and Replaceable

By Drew B on May 24, 2023

A great paradox of early-stage startups is that team members are trying to be indispensable and replaceable—at the same time.

People join startups to make their mark. They desire to leave a unique impact on the organization, or what I call "counterfactual" impact. That is, what impact have they created that, had they not been around, would not otherwise have happened? Large companies are great for being a cog in the machine, but startups are a place to make a dent in the universe and will something into action.

Yet, engineers at a startup are also familiar with the "Bus Factor." Imagine (quite morbidly) that someone were to be hit by a bus. Would the organization be able to continue and still thrive without them? Under this lens, the goal is to make sure you are replaceable. One of many. Potentially even work yourself out of a job.

How do we reconcile these two seemingly opposing ideas? How can employees at early-stage startups be both indispensable and replaceable?

I think the answer is quite simple: systems. Become a builder of systems.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of systems: code systems and people systems. Understanding how to build such systems is the key to becoming both indispensable and replaceable.

Code systems may be the more familiar of the two. Tech startups build products so that they can automate value propositions and various use cases., for instance, has a built-in scheduling platform so that all the calendar invites for tutoring sessions are issued automatically via code. That's table stakes.

But over time, more and more Schoolhouse systems have been developed where previously it was done manually. For instance, every time there was a safety issue, our safety team used to reach out to the affected users over email in a one-off manner. That worked at first, but as the platform grew, so did our systems. Now we have a built-in safety tracking and messaging system on the platform, with templates and all. This lets us scale more efficiently.

But code systems are just one type of system. The other type is people systems.

I truly absorbed this concept from our co-founder Mariah Olson, who has helped build out our community, safety, and quality systems. Mariah, more than almost anyone else I know, thinks like a systems builder. She has a computer science background, but she doesn't write code at Schoolhouse. Instead, she builds teams of volunteers and users to jointly accomplish these larger goals.

Take our quality system, for example. Whereas there used to be a point where Mariah and I could review all the tutoring session recordings and coach tutors, that soon became untenable. We recruited a team of more experienced mentors, but even they started to get overwhelmed by the numbers. So now we had to ask ourselves: How can we triage all tutoring sessions and focus on the tutors that need the most help? Who should do that triaging? What rubrics should they use? How do we incentivize volunteers and ensure they find it to be a meaningful experience? These are classic human system questions. How can we bring structure to a team of people and help them accomplish more as a whole than their parts?
Now, to tie it back to how one can be both indispensable and replaceable...

To build a novel system like the systems described above — whether code or people — is to be indispensable in an early-stage startup. As everything grows, the old methods don't work anymore. Identifying and constructing a system that can scale well is to have real counterfactual impact. It's not easy, but once you think of yourself as a systems builder, the job becomes clearer.

At the same time, you build the system and then you're done! If the system is designed well, there is no single point of failure and you're now replaceable in that regard. The system takes over.

At that point, you're onto the next system. And the next. And the next. Perhaps this is one of the defining characteristics of a startup: there are always new systems to build. Each new scale of growth leads to a new regime of problems and opportunities. It's as if the product and organization have to continually reinvent themselves.

But one might wonder, doesn't someone have to run these systems? If everyone is a system builder, then who is operating these systems day-to-day?

The key here, I think, is to recognize that a well-designed system drastically reduces the work that needs to be done — sometimes to the point where it's not even noticeable. It also distributes it to a larger group of people — team members, volunteers, users. And if it's designed properly to be incentive-compatible, then everyone has something to gain from participating.

Some of our best examples of this have been systems that volunteers themselves have helped design. I'm thinking of everything from our incentive-compatible certification system to our new tutor onboarding tours. Volunteers developed self-sustaining systems that went beyond themselves and that now form a backbone of our platform.

It is this type of system building (and humility!) that I encourage in every team member at Schoolhouse.

So yes, we can all be indispensable and replaceable. We can all be system builders. And we are all part of a host of systems — even if we don't realize it.

Thank you to Mariah O, Sharon V, Ishani B, and Maya B for providing feedback on this post.

Written by Drew Bent, Co-Founder of [email protected] peer tutoring, for free.


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