“Agency problems” are what economists call situations where a person’s interests diverge from his or her firm’s interests.
Large companies are in a constant state of agency crisis. A primary role of senior management is to counter agency problems through organizational structures and incentive systems. For example, most big companies divide themselves into de facto smaller companies by creating business units with their own P&L or similar metric upon which they are judged. (Apple is a striking counterexample: I once pitched Apple on a technology that could increase the number of iTunes downloads. I was told “nobody optimizes that. The only number we optimize here is P&L in the CFO’s office”).
If you are selling technology to large companies, you need to understand the incentives of the decision makers. As you go higher in the organization, the incentives are more aligned with the firm’s incentives. But knowledge and authority over operations often reside at lower levels. Deciding what level to target involves nuanced trade offs. Good sales people understand how to navigate these trade offs and shepherd a sale. The complexity and counter-intuitiveness of this task is why it’s so difficult for inexperienced entrepreneurs to sell to large companies.
Agency problems also exist in startups, although they tend to be far less dramatic than at big companies. Simply having fewer people means everyone is, as they say in programming, “closer to the metal”. The emphasis on equity compensation also helps. But there are still issues. Some CEOs are more interested in saying they are CEOs at parties than in the day-to-day grind of building a successful company. Some designers are focused on building their portfolio. Some developers are only interested in intellectually stimulating projects. Every job has its own siren song.
One of the reasons The Wire is such a great TV show is that it shows in realistic and persuasive detail how agency problems in large organizations consistently thwart well intentioned individual efforts. The depressing conclusion is that our major civic institutions are doomed to fail. Those of us who are technology optimists counter that the internet allows new networks to be created that eliminate the need for large organizations and their accompanying agency problems. Ideally, those networks recreate the power of large organizations but operate in concert like startups.