The trough of meeting overload

For the first time in over 12 years of running a business, something magical has happened: The number of meetings on my calendar is decreasing.

In the early days of the company, I had close to zero meetings. We didn’t have any customers or employees, so I really just had the occasional call with my co-founder. Aside from that, my schedule was wide open.

But then we started getting customers, and some of them wanted to talk on the phone. Then we hired some employees which meant training, one-on-ones, all-hands meetings, and more. By the time we were at 15 employees, I was overloaded with meetings. It seemed like a law of nature that the more people at the company, the more meetings I needed to be in. But I was at my breaking point, so how could we possibly keep growing?

And yet now, at 19 employees, my schedule is opening up again. I have fewer meetings than I’ve had in years. What happened?

Why my schedule has cleared up

The thing that changed is that the team size hit a critical mass.

As I wrote recently, your early hires need to be doers, not leaders. That means it’s your job as the CEO to make sure each person is working on the right things. Additionally, at a young startup, most processes aren’t really ironed out yet, so you can’t just put things on cruise control. The result: You end up spending a lot of time in meetings (or otherwise working on coordination and communication rather than deep work).

As you hire more people and the business gets more complex, it makes sense that there’s even more coordination work that needs to be done.

But at some point, the team gets big enough that it can be split into sub-teams, each team with its own leader. Furthermore, as the business becomes more mature, there’s less chaos, so running a team becomes less like entrepreneurship, and more like management. That’s easier to delegate.

The result? You switch from being directly connected to each employee to only being the coordinator between teams. Those other meetings you were previously attending are mostly still happening, but you don't have to be in them anymore.

I'm calling this the trough of meeting overload. It's mostly a theory at this point (I'd love to hear if others have experienced the same thing) but I suspect that most startup CEOs start with a lot of unstructured time, then it all gets gobbled up by meetings as they grow, and then eventually they've delegated enough responsibility that the meetings reach a nice equilibrium.

A visual of the trough of meeting overload. On the left, you don't have employees, so there are no meetings. In the middle, you're managing everyone, and you have a lot of meetings. On the right, you've delegated, so you just manage the managers and have a medium amount of meetings.

This doesn’t mean no meetings

With 19 employees, I’m still in more meetings than most people at the company. You can break my meetings into a few different categories:

  • Managing the managers - Even if you’ve completely delegated the leadership of each team to someone else, you still need to coordinate the work between teams. Regardless of company size, I think a CEO should always expect to “manage” at least a small group of leaders. Having said that, the more senior those people are, the less work is involved in managing them.
  • CEO work - A CEO is the primary person responsible for setting the company direction, and it’s difficult to do that without talking to other people. I have a weekly meeting called “group brainstorming” where I get feedback from a random group of employees, talk to customers for about an hour per week, and have one-on-one meetings with everybody every six months. This is how I stay connected to everything happening at the company.
  • Managing teams of one - If a company gets big enough, literally every area of the business has an entire department devoted to it. At a 19-person company, that’s not true. The core areas (in our case, that’s support and software engineering) have full teams with their own managers, but other areas (e.g. office management, HR, etc.) have individual people working on them with no management layer. This doesn’t have to be true, but I think it’s often the case that the CEO is the defacto manager of anyone who isn’t on a real team.
  • Individual contributions - Some CEOs want to be full-time on “CEO work” but that isn’t the only approach. I personally love product design and product management, so I want to continue spending some of my deep work time on that. As a result, I still sit in product-related meetings.

If I wanted to cut down on meetings even more, the individual contributions would be easy to delegate. I also suspect that the "team of one" meetings will naturally go away over time as we continue to grow. But I don't think there's much to be done about the first two types of meetings (note: "meetings" could be replaced with "emails" or "asynchronous audio calls" or whatever else, but either way, you're spending time on management/coordination instead of deep work).

If you're a founder or manager, I'd love to hear if this resonates with you. Have you ever found yourself in the trough of meeting overload?

Have thoughts on this post? I'd love to hear from you! I'm @TylerMKing on Twitter.