In the past a leader was a boss. Today’s leaders must be partners with their people… they no longer can lead solely based on positional power.
- Ken Blanchard
Baseball analogies are one thing that runs rampant in the startup world. From hitting singles, to Homerun, the analogies of the great American pastime easily convey message. Following that tradition, there’s a lesson to understand about startups the moment you step up to the plate:
Your idea is not that relevant.
Ideas are, simply put, a commodity. As a colleague of ours says, “There is no such thing as an original idea, only original perspective.” People provide that perspective, people are unique, and as it relates to the ever changing and immensely competitive environment of startups, the right people are precious. In a world of rapidly changing technology, perspective is what generates originality, without it, you just have an idea. In today’s world, that idea has been thought of by a hundred people at the exact same moment as you. It’s the people around you and the perspective’s they bring to ideas that generate disruptive companies and Sustainable Startups.
If this is the case, then Sustainable Startups are all about the team you collect around you. More importantly, Sustainable Startups are about the team you collect that helps you bridge the gap, fight through downtimes and push to success.
The team you gather must not only have the mindset of an entrepreneur but they have to be willing to adapt to change at the drop of a hat, quickly grasp new concepts and product iterations and you, as a leader must exemplify these same qualities. A leader is a teacher, not by holding hands, but by living the qualities you demand of your startup team. As a leader you have to not only be open and willing to be a part of your own exercises, but show the care and patience necessary when teaching and facilitating the growth of others. It takes time, which are three words most startups and their founders hate hearing, but you will notice the significant difference in hiring the person with the right experience, versus hiring the right person for the job.
How do you make your startup sustainable by making it about the people?
The important thing to understand is that these Principles work best when not in a vacuum. Every Principle and every step involved is designed to work in conjunction with every other Principle. We start off our Principles with the one that we believe, if isolated, will give your startup the greatest chance for success. There are three steps to this first Principle and we’ll start by addressing the first step of our first Principle.
The three steps designed to make Principle One work effectively are:
As we continue we’ll be providing you with the step by step processes to make these Principles part of your inherent corporate culture. The general mentality in a lot of startup circles is that without a game changing idea, your startup doesn’t have a chance of success. More often than not, the buzzwords like “Game Changing” or “World Class” are used to hype up a product beyond what it actually is. The first thing most people realistically look at when they evaluate a startup is the team that has been assembled, and there’s a very simple reason for that. Teams ultimately define the success or failure of a startup, and the team is critical to the success of a Sustainable Startup.
Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.
- Napoleon Hill
There are steps startups can take to ensure they are on the path towards creation. Sustainable Startups are those that are obsessed with their focus. For all intents and purposes, we suggest that these startups are in “Benefit Mode”.
Their concern lies with their customers. On a daily basis they are asking what benefit can we provide to our customers? What pain point do they have, and what feedback have they given us? This is one of the true tests of a Sustainable Startup. The more qualitative data that can be gathered from a customer, the better off the product development cycle for the startup will be.
It’s important to note that for Sustainable Startups to really grow they need to remain focused on the 80-20 rule. 80% of the time they must be in “Benefit Mode”, 20% of the time, in competition.
This mentality means there must be a lot of interactions with your initial customer base. There are two key questions that Sustainable Startups need to ask their customer base that helps to ensure they are in “Benefit Mode”.
What Benefit Do Customers Want?
The more time Sustainable Startups spend with their customers, they more they are able to determine what it is, exactly, that draws customers in. As a startup is able to pull this information, get feedback, get notes for iterations, they are able to plot out potential growth areas. By having this knowledge Sustainable Startups can build a roadmap as to where their growth is going to go.
What Will It Take To Implement Customer Wants?
Not that every want or desire will get implemented, but the benefits that customers have laid out as their wants will typically get highest priority from a Sustainable Startup. At the early stages of a company it is incredibly important to determine what is a feasible implementation, and what is projected growth. It is incredibly important to note that this feedback from customers is typically the first time a startup steps outside of their vacuum. It is time for them to validate their hypotheses about their customers.
Principle One – Step One
Finding Your Focus
“Be dramatically willing to focus on the customer at all costs, even at the cost of obsoleting your own stuff.”
— Scott Cook
Businesses are challenged every day by the need to keep themselves, and their employees focused. It’s an every day fact that startups must deal with. While it is incredibly important in determining how a startup interacts and encourages its employees, as a whole the company must look at itself and determine what it will choose to be focused on.
From here they must establish whether they are going to create or compete on this focus point. These choices will ultimately dictate the growth and style the startup takes on. They aren’t definitive choices, but they do form a guideline that sets the direction for the company’s movement. What is important to remember when determining a startup’s focus is that startups that create define “market dominance” by creating an unfair advantage.
Now this doesn’t mean unfair in an unethical sense, far from it. They want to create an advantage that gives them an advantage their competitors can’t easily overcome, a self-made barrier to entry. Startups do this not just by focusing on creation, but by simply being a better competitor.
When a startup is determining their focus the number one goal is to examine their competitors. Marketplaces always have competitors, even down to the tiniest niche; there is someone that is entering into, or already established in that space. As a startup, know what differentiates it from others in the marketplace and compile them into a list.
The more competitors a startup is able to compile, the stronger their understanding will be of their marketplace. Startups that create are able to look at this list, understand where the differentiation points are, and find out how to solve perceived pain points.
One of the significant differences between startups that create, and those that compete is how they look at this compiled list. Startups that create examine the list of competitors and their offerings and see what they offer, or can offer as benefits, above and beyond current offerings. Competitors view this and determine which features they offer that outweigh those offered by competitors.
Examining features often ends up in the same place. The company Does X faster than someone else, or have fees Y times smaller. These aren’t mass differentiators, just small differences that can be solved by their competitors easily. Companies that create tend to focus on driving different benefits. A company that is focused on creation tends to be the type to aim for 40% increase in customer sales or a 25% increase in lead generation.
Focus is centered around finding your differentiator and using it to provide a benefit to your customer base.
“You can’t suppress creativity and you can’t suppress innovation.”
- James Daly
Creating a successful startup is tricky business. For one, it’s never as easy as you think it’s going to be, ever. It will always keep you up at night, it will always be on your mind and a slight source of constant panic.
Welcome to Sustainable Startup.
The methodology behind creating a Sustainable Startup is rooted deeply in real world experience. Doing away with hypothetical situations, or managerial tests and focusing on the real situations startups find themselves in, allows to incorporate their experiences and grow from them. In the end it all comes down to one thing, building a Sustainable Startup means building a team that can cross the chasm.
Being both an Investor and a Startup Entrepreneur I have come to fully appreciate that holding and being held accountable is a cornerstone to success. What is the key?
Knowing exactly what to hold Management accountable for.
The other day an investor group we work with introduced us to a candidate whom they wished to sit on one of the boards of startup we are building. The prospective board member had a follow up call with one of our partners and it went something like this:
I just finished reading The New Science of Building Great Teams by Alex Pentland. This paper, put out in the Harvard Business Review, is one of the most fascinating reads I have had in a long time, kudos again to Paul Readwin our Chief Intelligence Officer at Business Instincts for coming across this as part of his ongoing research.
This past week, on a very respected and widely read management blog I read the following:
“Here’s the Best Definition of Employee Engagement You’ll Ever See Anywhere, Somebody once told me – and this is some of the best advice I ever got – that for any business there are three levels of leadership. One is getting somebody to do what you want them to do. The second is getting people to think what you want them to think; then you don’t have to tell them what to do because they will figure it out.”
This type of statement is at the root of so many of our management challenges in all corporate cultures. Organizations and their leaders are thinking that aligning a team is about “getting them to think what you think”. Personally, I think this is closer to Manipulation than Alignment. Everyone wants employees to tow the company line, because the saying is true, at the end of the day you’re either on the team or you’re not. But as an employee, how that looks will always differ from the views of management. Creating engagement amongst employees doesn’t require manipulation, because that’s not true engagement, it requires corporate alignment.
The integration of two companies can be tough at the best of times, but when the job market is tight there are some specific things to look out for. These are the factors that management needs to keep their eyes open and skills sharp for.
A lot of integrations fall apart or are not accretive. Most of the time I think this happens because of two straight forward reasons:
“In today’s environment, hoarding knowledge ultimately erodes your power. If you know something very important, the way to get power is by actually sharing it.” - Joseph Badaracco
A startup is an organization that has created something great from a simple concept. You’ve taken your team and idea, approached it tenaciously while keeping your passions in perspective and grown it into a Sustainable Startup with a team that is able to communicate and scale together. While being poised to grow and able to scale are important for any startup, for a Sustainable Startup giving away what you’ve learned is a priority.