Startups are a tricky business. No matter how much you prepare, plan and strategize, by their very nature, they rarely, if ever, play out exactly as you’d thought. The shifting needs of a shifting market, the crucial forks in the development road and the whims of investors can mean that a startup’s fortunes can turn on a dime. And for a founder, this can mean many sleepless nights. It’s this unpredictable dynamic which makes the startup life both exasperating and exhilarating.
In my experience, the majority of long-time entrepreneurs wish they could go back and impart some pearls of hard-earned wisdom to their younger selves. But since none of these entrepreneurs have come up with a viable time travel device, the next best thing might just be to pass along some of the biggest and hardest lessons learned to the next generation.
1. Big egos sink businesses. Right now, there’s a distinct rock star status attached to being a startup founder. With the industry spawning pre-pubescent millionaires and boy-next-door billionaires, being the top dog behind the company name and logo can feel like a very big deal.
The relentless pursuit of success mixed with large doses of adrenalin and anxiety can create a pretty heady cocktail for a new entrepreneur. The strange concoction makes for all-nighters and ruined vacations, but is firmly placed in the entrepreneur job description.
The power and pressure involved with carrying a company’s fate on new and inexperienced shoulders can also lead to an inflated sense of self, which invariably leads to poor decision-making. A founder with an unchecked ego, who dominates discussion and isn’t able to accept advice from the team he’s assembled, is also the most likely to suffocate his own startup.
2. ‘Brilliance is a team, not an idea.’ In my experience this is a statement often said, but seldom heard.
No doubt, an idea is essential: it’s a trigger for the creation of a new business and the initial basis on which an execution plan is formed. But that’s all it is. Without a brilliant team to push back and challenge it, to work tirelessly towards developing it into a viable product or service and then to tell the world about it, an idea is as useful as an air guitar at a rock concert.
3. Vision is constant communication.
As a founder, we tend to have grand visions on the impact our startup is going to have on the world. Whether it be to cure cancer or streamline the egg poaching process, communicating the company vision effectively, efficiently and regularly to those who need to know, can be an exceptionally difficult task for a first time founder.
Assuming the startup team inherently knows where the company is going can lead to confusion and costly misunderstandings. Daily explanations of what each team member should be considering and aiming to accomplish is likely to kill productivity dead. Finding the balance comes with practice.
4. Brutal honesty is the best choice. Being candid is an incredibly difficult skill to master. For a founder, it takes courage to speak openly and honestly with a member of the team about what isn’t working.
The natural tendency is to try and keep the ship steady and not risk damaging relationships, or the startup itself, through confrontation.
In truth, trying to spare someone’s feelings can be equally as damaging to a business as letting bad work continue. Whether news being delivered is ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ delivering it with transparency and honesty should always be the preferred choice.
While this doesn’t in any way negate the need for entrepreneurs to be tactful and decent, tiptoeing around issues instead of tackling them head-on can be extremely destructive.
5. There is no complete control. Delegation is the process from which leaders are born. As entrepreneurs, it can be painfully difficult to trust someone else with a key part of a project, especially when you know you could do it yourself given the time.
Teams are what make or break a startup and, if a founder can’t delegate some of the most essential tasks to the team they’ve assembled, chances are their doors are going to be shuttered sooner rather than later. Trust can be challenging but it’s essential in the early stages. For a founder, believing that they will be able to retain complete control throughout the life of their startup is an illusion. Unfortunately, realizing that can be a very painful process.
Cameron Chell is the co-founder and CEO of Podium Ventures, a venture creation firm in Calgary that finances and builds high-tech startups.