“Acting Like a Startup”
Over the years I have heard comments like, “We operate like a startup,” “We act like a startup,” and “We are an overnight success that was 10 years in the making.” These statements are often euphemisms for “We are small and not growing as quickly as we would like.”
There are numerous estimates of startups in their first few years. One of the best descriptions that I have found is from Failory, but Investopedia and LendingTree have similar but differing takes on the statistics and root causes. All three articles linked to are worth reading. The net result is that the outcome of failure is much greater than the outcome of success, especially over time. So, “acting like a startup” is not necessarily a good thing even when it is true. You want to act like a successful startup!
Understanding the data and various causes for success and failure are great inputs to business plans. I have been a principal with successful startups, both early employees and founders. Understanding the data and various causes for success and failure are significant inputs to business plans focused on long-term success. As a Founder, there are a few points that I believe to be key to success:
- You have specific expertise that is in demand and would be valuable to an identifiable number of prospective customers. How would those customers use those skills, and how would they quantify the value? That understanding provides focus on what to sell and to whom.
- Have a detailed understanding of the market and key players to hone in on a niche to succeed.
- Understand your strengths and weaknesses, and then hire the most intelligent and most ambitious people whose strengths complement your strengths and weaknesses.
- Understand how you will reach those potential customers and the messaging you believe will compel them. Then, find a way to test those assumptions and refine them as necessary. Marketing and Lead Generation is very important.
- Have a plan for delivering on whatever you are selling before you get your first sale. A startup needs to develop its track record of success, beginning with its first sale.
- Cash flow is king. It is far too easy to run out of money while looking at a balance sheet that seems excellent because of receivables. Understand what matters and why it matters.
- Founders need to understand the administrative side of a business – especially the financial, legal (especially contract law), insurance, and tax side of things. Find experts to validate your approach and fill in knowledge gaps.
- Consistency leads to repeatable success. You standardize, optimize, and automate everything possible. Wasted time and effort becomes wasted opportunity.
- Finally, there needs to be sufficient cash on hand to fund the time that it takes to find and close your first deals, deliver and invoice the work, and then receive your first payments. That could easily be a 3-6 month period.
Those are the foundational items that are reasonably tangible. What is not as concrete but equally as important are:
- Having or developing the ability to spot trends and identify gaps that could become opportunities for your business.
- Having an agile mindset allows you to pivot your offerings or approach to refine your business model and hone in on that successful niche for your business.
- Foster a sense of innovation within your business. Always look for opportunities to deliver a better product or service, improve the efficiency and effectiveness of your business, and create intellectual property (IP) that adds long-term value.
- Focus on being the best and building a brand that helps differentiate you from your competition.
- Become a Leader, Not a Manager. Create your vision of success, set expectations for each person and team, and help eliminate roadblocks to their success. Trust your team to help you grow, and replace members quickly if it becomes clear that they are not a good fit.
As Steve Jobs once said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
Winning is hard, so focus on the journey. Making your customers’ lives easier and allowing your employees to be creative while doing something they are proud of will lead you to your destination. But, when things start going well, don’t sit back and convince yourself that you are successful. Instead, continue to focus on ways to improve and grow.
Success means different things to different people, but longevity, growth, profitability, and some form of contributing to a greater good should be dimensions of success for any vision.
The Value Created by a Strong Team
One of the best team-building exercises that I have participated in was as a Board Member for the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Wisconsin. We were going down a path that led to a decision on whether or not to invest $150M in a new addition. The CEO at the time, Jon Vice, wisely determined that strong teams were needed for each committee in order to thoroughly vet the idea from every possible perspective.
The process started by being given a book to read (“Now, Discover Your Strengths” by Marcus Buckingham & Donald O. Clifton, Ph.D.), and then completing the “Strengthsfinder” assessment using a code provided in the book. The goal was to understand gaps in perception (how you view yourself vs. how others view you) so that you could truly understand your own strengths and weaknesses. Then, teams were created with people having complementary skills to help eliminate weaknesses from the overall team perspective. The results were impressive.
Over my career, I have been involved in many team-building exercises and events – some of which provide useful insights, but most failed to pull the findings together in a way that was concrete, had context, and offered actionable recommendations. Key areas that consistently omitted were around Organizational Culture, Organizational Politics, and Leadership. Those three areas have a significant impact on value creation vis-à-vis team effectiveness and commitment.
When I had my consulting company we had a small core team of business and technology consultants and would leverage subcontractors and an outsourcing company to allow us to take on more concurrent projects as well as larger, more complex projects. This approach worked for three reasons:
- We had developed a High-Performance Culture that was based on:
- Purpose: A common vision of success, and understanding of why that mattered, and an understanding of specifically how that was defined and measured.
- Ownership: Taking responsibility for something and being accountable for the outcome. This included responsibility for the extended team of contractors. Standardized procedures helped ensure consistency and make it easier for each person to accept responsibility for “their team.”
- Trust: Everyone understood that they not only needed to trust and support each other but in order to be effective and responsive the others would need to trust their judgment. If there was a concern we would focus on the context and process improvements to understand what happened and implement changes based on lessons learned. Personal attacks were avoided for the good of the entire team.
- Empowerment: Everyone understood that there was risk associated with decision making, while at the same time realizing that delaying an important decision could be costly and create more risk. Therefore, it was incumbent upon each member to make good decisions as needed and then communicate changes to the rest of the team.
- Clear and Open Communication: People on the team were very transparent and honest. When there was an issue they would attempt to resolve it first with that person, and then escalating if the two people could not reach an agreement and decided to seek the consensus of the team. Everything was out in the open and done in the spirit of being constructive and collaborating. Divisiveness is the antithesis of this tenet.
People who were not a good fit would quickly wash out, so our core team consisted of trusted experts. There was a friendly competition that helped raise the bar for the entire team, but when needed the other team members became a safety net for each other.
We were all focused on the same goal, and everyone realized that the only way to be successful was to work together for the success of the team. Win or lose, we did it together. The strength of our team created tremendous value – internally and for our customers that we sustained for several years. That value included innovation, higher levels of productivity and profitability, and an extremely high success rate.
This approach can work at a Business Unit or Department level but is most effective when it starts at the top. When employees see the leaders of their company behaving in this manner it provides the model and sets expectations for everyone under them. If there is dysfunction within an organization it often starts at the top – by promoting or accepting behaviors that do not benefit the whole of the organization. But, with a strong and positive organizational culture, the value of strong teams is multiplied and becomes an incredible competitive advantage.
Are you Visionary or Insightful?
Having great ideas that are not understood or validated is pointless, just as being great at “filling in the gaps” to do amazing things does not accomplish much if what you are building achieves little towards your goals. This post is about Dreaming Big, and then turning those dreams into actionable plans.
Let me preface this post by stating that both are important, and both are complementary roles. But, when you don’t recognize the difference between the two it becomes much harder to successfully execute and realize value/gain a competitive advantage.
The visionary person has great ideas but doesn’t always create plans or follow-through on developing the idea. There are many reasons why this happens (distractions, new interests, frustration, lack of time), so it is good to be aware of that as this type of person can benefit by being paired with someone who is willing and able to understand a new idea or approach, and then take the next steps to flesh out a high-level plan to present that idea and potential benefits to key stakeholders.
The insightful person sees the potential in an idea, helps others to understand the benefits and gain their support, and often creates and executes a plan to prototype and validate the idea – killing it off early if the anticipated goals are unachievable. They document, learn from these experiences, and become more and more proficient with validation of the idea or approach and quantification of the potential benefits.
Neither of these types of people are affected by loss aversion bias.
I find it amazing how frequently you hear someone referred to as being Visionary, only to see that the person in question was able to eliminate some of the noise and “see further down the road” than most people. While this is a valuable skill to have, it is more akin to analytics and science than art. Insight usually comes from focus, understanding, intelligence, and being open minded. Those qualities are important in both business and personal settings.
On the other hand, someone who is truly visionary looks beyond what is already illuminated and can therefore be detected or analyzed. It’s like a game of chess where the visionary person is thinking six or seven moves ahead. They are connecting the dots for the various future possibilities while their competitor is still thinking about their next move.
The interesting thing is that this can be very frustrating situation for everyone.
- The person with the good idea may become frustrated because they feel that they are misunderstood or ignored.
- The people around that visionary person become frustrated, wondering why that person isn’t able to focus on what is important or why they fail to see / understand the big picture.
- Those visionary ideas and suggestions are often viewed as tangential or even irrelevant. It is only over time that the others understand what the visionary person was trying to show them – often after a competitor has started to execute on the idea.
- The insightful person that wants to make a difference can feel constrained in environments that are static and offer little opportunity for change and improvement.
Both Insightful and Visionary people feel that they are being strategic. Both are focused on doing the right thing. Both have similar goals. That’s what is truly ironic. They may view each other as the competition, rather than seeing the potential of collaborating.
This is where a strong management team can have a positive impact by fostering a culture of innovation and placing these people together to work towards a common goal. Providing a small amount of time and resources to explore an idea can lead to amazing outcomes. When I had my consulting company I sometimes joked, “What would Google do?”
The insightful person may see a payback on their ideas much sooner than the visionary person, and I believe that is due to their focus on what is already in front of them. It may be a year or more before what the visionary person has described shifts to the mainstream and into the realm of insight – hopefully before it reaches the realm of common sense (or worse yet, is completely passed by).
My recommendation is that people create a system to gather ideas, along with a description of what the purpose, goals, and advantages of those ideas are. Foster creative behavior by rewarding people for participation, whether or not the ideas are used. Then, review those ideas on a regular basis. With any luck you will find some good ideas – some insightful and possibly some even visionary.
Look for commonalities and trends to identify the people who are able to cut through the noise or see beyond the periphery, and the areas having the greatest potential for innovation. This approach will help drive your business to the next level.
You never know where the next good idea will come from. Supporting efforts like these provide opportunities to grow – people, products, and profits.
Investing in Others – Becoming a Mentor
I have been very fortunate throughout my career. There have been incredible opportunities, risks with big rewards, and lessons learned from mistakes and failure (e.g., one of the biggest lessons learned early is that most mistakes will not kill you, and therefore you can find a way to recover from them). In hindsight, I believe was has been most valuable in shaping my career are the people who saw something in me and invested in my career – my mentors.
None of these people had to help me. It’s possible that they did so for their own benefit (i.e., the better I do my job the easier it is for them), but I believe they were passing along a valuable gift. I was lucky have been given these gifts early in my career as they have been invaluable both personally and professionally.
As a mentee may not recognize either the value of what you are receiving, or the effort that has gone into providing that gift to you. It is only years later that you fully appreciate what others have done for you.
In my first programming job I had a manager (Jim) who assigned me to work with different key people and would follow-up every time to ask what I had learned. Then one day he gave me my first project. I was excited but anxious because I did not want to fail my mentor.
I only had six months of experience and this was a big project for an important automotive customer (Subaru, for the first customer loyalty coupon system for a major auto manufacturer in late 1980s). It was a stretch for me, and the system had to be production ready in six months.
He let me build it, checked daily to see if I had questions, would provide feedback and direction if I asked, but pretty much left me alone. He seemed much more calm and confident in my success than I did at the time.
After two months I thought I was finished. We reviewed everything and he picked the system apart – showing me the flaws and then discussing the logic and reasoning behind my decisions. We spent half a day on this exercise and it was only years later that I realized that he was helping me learn more than validating the system design.
After another two months or so we reviewed the second iteration of this system. He told me while this version would work and would be acceptable from anyone else, I still had time remaining and he was confident that I could do even better next time. He provided a couple of tips about high-level areas he focused on while designing and developing systems and left it at that.
When I came back with the third iteration system he reviewed it, smiled, and said that he could not have done this better himself. At first I was proud of successfully completing my first independent project, but later I realized how much I had learned in those six months. This experience had provided me with a lifelong benefit as well as provided the motivation to help others in a similar manner. My mentor was (and still is) a great leader!
As a manager this person had so many reasons not to give me the project, to just tell me what to do, and to not let me redo it (twice). From a short-term management perspective what he did was wasteful. But, from a big picture perspective he was doing things that helped me create so much more value for the company for the 3-4 years I continued to work there. The benefit certainly outweighed the cost, and this person was wise enough to see that.
Several years ago there was a young woman in Australia that contacted me via LinkedIn, asking for suggestions on improving her skills in order to advance her career. I gave her many assignments over the course of a year and she did amazing work. She advanced in her company, later relocated to another country, and then switched industries. She currently holds a high-level position and has been very successful. It made me feel good knowing that my efforts played a small part in her advancement.
From my perspective it all comes down to how you view people and relationships. Are they like commodities that are used and replaced as needed, or are they assets that can grow in value? I like to think that I have helped the “career portfolio” of several people – which helps ensure that business is not a zero sum game. Hopefully those people will do the same thing, creating leverage on those investments.
So, what do you think?
Diamonds or just Shiny Rocks?
During a very candid review years ago, my boss at the time (the CEO of the company) made a surprising comment to me. He said, “Good ideas can be like diamonds – drop them once in a while and they have a lot of value. But, sprinkle the everywhere you go and they just become a bunch of shiny rocks.” This was not the type of feedback that I was expecting, but it turned out to be both insightful and very valuable.
For a long time I have held the belief that there are four types of people at any company: 1) People who want to make things better; 2) People who are interested in improvement, but only in a supporting role; 3) People who are mainly interested in themselves (they can do great things, but often at the expense of others); and 4) People that that are just there and don’t care much about anything. This opinion is based on a working and consulting at many companies over a few decades.
A recent Gallup Poll stated Worldwide only 13% of Employees are “engaged at work” (the rest are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged”). This is a sad reflection of employees and work environments if it is true. Since it is a worldwide survey it may be highly skewed by region or industry, and therefore not indicative of what is typical across the board. Those results were not completely aligned with my thinking, but was interesting nonetheless.
So, back to the story…
Prior to working at this company I had run my own business for nearly a decade, and was a consultant for 15 years working at both large corporations and startups. I am used to taking the best practices learned from other companies and engagements, and then incorporating them into our own business practices to improve and foster growth.
I tend to take a systemic view of business and see the importance of having all components of “the business machine” optimized and working in harmony. Improvements in one area ultimately have a positive impact in other areas of the business.
While I was trying to be helpful, I was being insensitive to the fact that my “friendly suggestions based on past success” stepped on other people’s toes, and that was creating frustration for the people that I was intending to help. By providing simple solutions to their problems it reflected poorly on my peers. In hindsight this should have led to increased collaboration among the executive team.
Suggestions and examples that were intended to be helpful had the opposite effect. Even worse, it was probably just as frustrating to me to be ignored as it was to others to have me infringe on their aspect of the business. The resulting friction was very noticeable to my boss.
Had I been an external consultant, those same ideas (“diamonds”) may have been considered. But as part of the leadership team I was coming across as one of those people who were just interested in themselves (leaving “shiny rocks” laying around for people to ignore or possibly trip over).
Perception is reality, and my attempts to help were hurting me. Luckily, I received this honest and helpful feedback early in this position and was able to turn those perceptions around.
What are the morals of this story?
First, people who are engaged have the greatest potential to make a difference. Part of being a business leader is making sure that you have the best possible team, and are creating an environment that challenges, motivates, and fosters growth and accountability.
Disengaged employees or people who are unwilling or unable to work with/collaborate with others may not be your best choices regardless of how talented they may be. They could actually be detrimental to the overall team dynamics.
Second, doing what you believe to be the right thing isn’t necessarily the best or right way to approach something. Being sensitive of the big picture and testing whether or your input is being viewed as constructive was a big lesson learned for me. If you are not being effective then consider that your execution could be flawed. Self-awareness is very important.
And third, use your own examples as stories to help others understand potential solutions to problems in a non-threatening way. Let them make the connection to their own problems, thereby helping them become more effective and allowing them to save face. It is not a competition. And, if someone else has good ideas, help support them through collaboration. In the end it should be more about effectiveness, growth, and achievement of business goals than who gets the most credit.
While this seems like common sense to me now, my background and personal biases blinded me to that perspective.
My biggest lesson learned was about adaptation. There are many ways to be effective and make a difference. Focus on understanding the situation and its dynamics in order to employ the best techniques, as that is ultimately critical to the success of the team or organization.