The Start-Up Corner: 3 Truths About Start-Up Pace
She said she passed out on the plane from exhaustion on her way to an Investor meeting.
She didn't pass out from the food, or fear of flying, or a drop in cabin pressure. No. She passed out from something that could have been avoided: Exhaustion.
She was living the life many of us hear about: a first-time entrepreneur in her 20s, dedicated to the success of her dream. She didn't have a lot of business experience related to forming a sound strategy, creating a flexible plan so she could loosen her grip a bit, or defining a deliberate style for executing that plan to assure solid incremental execution (vs pushing for perfect execution).
But that was all OK-- she was an ace of the old "fake it til you make it" style. She was going to get through this. Her team and her company depended on her ability to get funding, and she did indeed get that funding, but at what cost and was that cost necessary?
By the time she met with me she had decided she couldn't keep up, wasn't cut out to be a Founder or a CEO, and was looking for someone to take on an Interim CEO role (me) as she re-examined her next steps. I flatly refused and instead turned her attention to the importance of PACE. She could do this, and she had successfully passed the first of the typical three major funding rounds. It was time for her to breathe, not quit.
Now before you say, "Yeah, but giving your ALL is part of being in a start-up-- the pace is SUPPOSED to be grueling," let's review what leadership exhaustion does to the performance of any business, especially a start-up that (by design) is fraught with single points of failure and a fledgling infrastructure.
TRUTH #1: Perspective is your most critical success factor for setting the pace, followed closely by a healthy mix of focus and discipline to actively manage the pace.
As a Founder, you will hear sage advice from everyone: a parent, your best friend, your spouse, your children, your investor(s). You will also be staring down dozens of ideas, new and old, and various priorities all calling your name. You can hire the best sequencer to block your plan into efficient time-bound modules, but really it won't matter. In the end, it's all about you as a leader.
A critical factor for leaders who need to hear all the voices but select only 2-3 to listen to at any given time, especially during the start-up phase when you are testing concepts and selecting those you will realize, is the steadfast use of PERSPECTIVE.
With the right perspective, and appropriate conviction to keep that perspective, you can sift through the noise and get to the heart of what you need to focus on. From there it's all about discipline: keeping your focus, which again is 100% dependent on perspective.
If you are struggling with perspective, it's time to take a break for a few hours or even a few days and find your balance. Go externally (coaching, mentoring, deserted island) if that is what you need. Founders are founders because of their innate ability to see possibilities where others may not find them-- or at the very least they have the gumption to go into the rabbit hole and try implementing the possibility. Without perspective, you will get lost and so will everyone else.
By the way, perspective gives you the gift to also see when your pace needs to shift-- when that Power-10 (for the rowers out there) will make a difference-- so that you can optimize resource spend and intensify activity only when it will result in better outcomes.
TRUTH #2: By setting an unrelenting pace, most Founders create a pervasive (and silent) cultural drag on progress
Nothing slows down progress more than unnecessarily pushing a team to perform at a never-changing, unrelenting pace. Not only does it demoralize a team and set the future for guaranteed fatigue, it slowly creates an activities-based culture (the silent killer of all companies).
Not sure if your culture has this type of silent killer brewing? Look around you.
Does the team habitually talk about all the work and being "so busy" without much discussion about the cost of that activity or a better way to do it? Does the team work like robots, simply doing as they are told without a discussion on alignment of mission? Do your customers or pilot groups (pre-commercial) get excited about being a part of your start-up? Does anyone talk about the results or impact of outcomes without being prompted by a financial discussion?
Do people look tired?
There is a short, description-based blog about Fatigue being the Worst Possible Growth Strategy For Your Small Business. The Author, Jackie Nagel, called this the "Entrepreneurial Fatigue Syndrome", and here are just a few examples of what fatigue can do to a business:
• Excessive and avoidable mistakes • Resistance to change • Impulsiveness • Inability to prioritize • Overlooking small and vital details • Decision dodging
By pushing so hard you will slow things down. You will likely also create a Sisyphean environment. Not good.
If you see the symptoms, break the pattern as soon as you can. Go back to your flexible plan, re-focus on essential activities, and talk more about outcomes vs the pace and activity.
TRUTH #3: You can create operative modules in your start-up that enable you to launch, grow and scale more efficiently (and then you can focus on customers and product while your business runs portions of itself)
Revisiting the Founder I introduced in the beginning of this article, part of her issue was how she confused her start-up with her product. This is very common, and it's important to change that mindset:
Your Start-Up is your business, it is not your product.
The Founder was setting up her business, designing / developing and (with Series A funding) commercializing her first product, and moving into an actual office environment all at the same time.
That's right-- the Founder was setting up her business and preparing to launch her product, at the same time. No wonder she was exhausted. I had just finished an 18 month assignment where we did the same thing, and that was with Series B funding and half the management team in place-- I knew the double-launch challenges quite well. (I've also done this before and felt very comfortable with slowing down the pace when it would result in improved outcomes... see Truths #1 and #2...)
She, like many other Founders, was rightly focused on her product. However, in order to support the commercialization of her product she also needed to launch the bare essentials of a business.
Here in the US, several VC's care about the setup of a business to assure that the business operations are efficient and intended margins preserved, so don't be afraid to ask about best models if you haven't decided on business infrastructure framework yet [or contact me and I'll happily volunteer whatever time you need to review this part of launching a business].
Below are some examples of what goes into a business valuation. I have labeled those items that can be managed through "operative modules," which when setup and appropriately aligned, can be streamlined rather nicely into all other aspects of your business, maturing several of your internal processes sooner than later. This frees you up to oversee your product launch:
• Your value proposition
• Your management team (operative module)
• Competitive strength
• Business model, inflection points and scaleability in your market (operative module)
• Your customers and/or partners (operative module)
• Margins, including liabilities / debts (operative module)
FINAL NOTE ON PACE AND YOUR ROLE AS A LEADER
Fact: The most effective leaders are calm, pensive, and healthy. This enables them to treat others with trust and respect even in the face of heightened stress and uncertainty.
Effective leaders care about wasteful efforts that disrupt performance and productivity, and though we all recognize the need to Power-10 the pace throughout a business's lifecycle (not just during start-up), we all must also recognize the value of finding and embracing the natural pace of your organization. Start-ups by definition make order out of chaos. There is no room for you to create more chaos.
And last, just remember: start-ups don't generally suffer from lack of employees willing to give it their all.
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