There is plenty of discussion about how to build a valuable and sustaining business. Yet, I don’t often see much coverage of the building blocks that really matter; the elements that are more behaviors or philosophies on how to run a thriving startup business, elements that need to be woven right into the fabric of the company. I was recently asked what my last startup (Agile Software) embraced when it came to the secret ingredients that made the “pancake batter” successful, so I delved into my memory bank and present them to you here.
1. Never Stop Recruiting
As much as the press celebrates the founder/entrepreneur, the reality is that there are always several people who contributed to the core idea that became the basis of a valuable company. Even more true, is that it takes many talented, committed, and passionate people to bring a vision to life.
These team members are the lifeblood of any startup. Without them, nothing happens. Perhaps the most important responsibility of an entrepreneur/CEO is to find and lead that team of people. To that end, smart entrepreneurs are constantly seeking out the most talented people they can find – for now, for six months, a year, three years from now. They constantly network and identify people who can fit into the organization and make a real contribution, a real difference, even when there is no open job spec.
A corollary to this concept is the “athlete.” Sometimes you find a person that is so good they can really make a difference right now, and are available right now, but they don’t fit into any open reqs. Great company builders will hire those people anyway, and worry about their ultimate best role latter. You can’t do this willy-nilly, but when a great athlete becomes available, you just have to bite the bullet and find a way to afford them.
2. No Religion, No Falling in Love
I’m tempted to make this number one. Many of Silicon Valley’s successful startups owe their existence to an established brand incumbent competitor that couldn’t make a critical shift, often because the established player was so religious (fervently committed) about a core part of their business, be it business model, technology platform, or distribution channel.
One of the most famous examples of all time in tech was Digital Equipment Corporation or DEC (I’m curious how many readers have ever even heard of them – tweet me @bdstolle if you have!). They were once the 2nd largest computer company in the world, a member of the Fortune 50, and the subject of books like In Search of Excellence. Unfortunately, DEC’s CEO was so religious about their proprietary operating system that he publicly referred to UNIX as “snake oil.” Some 20+ years later UNIX is the underlying core of virtually every OS on the planet, and few even remember DEC.
You can never fall in love with or be zealous about anything that your business is built upon. You must constantly question your core choices, and adapt as the market dictates. Intel’s founding CEO Andy Grove was passionate about this, with a mantra (paraphrased here) of, “You need to put yourself out of business before someone else does it for you.”
3. It’s Not a Family
You can’t treat your business or its employees “like family.” While it seems like a laudatory thing on the surface, over the long term, it can create all kinds of dysfunctional behaviors, such as coddling poor performers and making the leadership team slow to respond to employees’ challenges and issues. This does NOT mean you can’t have respect, compassion, and even affection for your team. But you must be level-headed about peoples’ performance and fit, and thinking of them as family can cloud the issue. My post on CEO failings (“How CEOs Lose Their Mojo”) touches more in this topic.
4. It’s Not Your Baby
This is very specifically a founder or CEO issue related to #3. Unless you fund the enterprise yourself, and keep it a family business, your duty is to your stakeholders (investors, employees, customers, suppliers, etc.), not your ego. While a certain amount of pride of authorship is OK, the, “It’s my baby” mentality impairs rational fact-based decision-making, just as the “We are family” mindset can. You should be ready, willing, and able to make hard decisions logically, up to and including replacing yourself, if there is someone who will clearly do a better job at leading the company. Everyone, including you, will be better off.
5. Asking Why
The most powerful word I know, aside from perhaps “No,” is “Why”. Asking “Why” is not about questioning the rationale or wisdom of a decision or directive, but about better understanding it. Knowing why something is being requested or done, allows the people doing the task to deliver on the true underlying objective. It also opens the door for better (cheaper, faster, etc.) alternatives to the “how” or “what.” Try asking “why” six times a day for a week. You will be surprised how much better you understand things, in very short order.
This may be the most powerful word in the English language, aside from “why.” Perhaps it’s because it’s imprinted on us as toddlers when it was the most frequent word we heard from our parents. Yet as adults, it’s remarkable how often we don’t hear that word. Think about it. Anyone trying to sell you anything desperately tries to avoid that word, and to find a way to satisfy your want/need — and earn your money.
Want to get a customer’s attention? Say the word “no.” It’s remarkable how focused they will suddenly become on what you have to say. In my last startup, we literally trained our team on how to say “no.” Our mantra was “under-promise and over-deliver.” We never said yes if we didn’t mean it, and knew how we were going to be able to do it. We were also slavish to the concept of a standardized product for everyone (a core SaaS tenant). We often had to say “no” to get the customers attention so we could have a real conversation. “Why” was critical in those discussions that followed “no,” by the way!
7. Under-Promise, Over-Deliver
You knew this one was coming! I won’t belabor this old saw, but we made it a core tenet of our culture. A similar concept was “Say what you are going to do, and then do what you said.”
8. No One Needs Permission
This is another way to say “everyone is accountable.” The primary context was when a customer needed something, our employees didn’t need permission to find a way to make it happen. We expected our employees to either take care of the issue themselves, or hand the baton off (without dropping it!) to the group most able to address the customer’s need. It wasn’t permission to interfere or trample on someone else’s area of responsibility; it was permission to own the customer in the moment, and then find the best way to take care of them.
9. Active Learning
There are several aspects to this point. We asked everyone to be a self-learner – learn about their job, the industry we were in, our customers, our competitors, technologies impacting our products, etc. — by reading, browsing the web, going to seminars and conferences, taking classes.
We also encouraged people to learn by experience. We actually monitored our employees’ time in their current position, and had a special review with them and their manager if they were still in the same job after two years. We wanted people moving around, learning, growing, and sharing what they had learned.
The last aspect of “active learning” was learning through action. While we wanted people to be thoughtful, most effective learning comes through doing. We encouraged people to think, but also to act quickly when trying new things or dealing with an unfamiliar situation, as many times the correct path will only reveal itself by taking action and seeing (learning) what happens.
10. Set Guard Rails
Employees are happiest, and companies tend to perform the best, when team members have a lot of freedom and latitude to get the job done in the way they deem best. However, anarchy isn’t efficient, either. Hence the guardrails, a.k.a cultural touchpoints, or “do’s and don’ts.” Guardrails let people know what is in-bounds and what is out-of-bounds in terms of behaviors, desired outcomes, etc. People then have wide latitude to get things done within the guardrails. Many of the points above were part of our “guardrails.”
This article was written by Bryan Stolle from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.