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It’s all in your head. Everything you need to operate your new business intelligently is already there. Of course, you will also need to access tools, talents and resources in the outside world at some point but none of that will matter in the least if you haven’t first built a walled garden inside your mind where you can grow and nurture your startup.
Startup thinking can be a steep climb with very little room to balance at the top. Founders tend to tumble down on either side of it. Either they feel that determination and self-confidence should be enough to power them through any and all roadblocks, or they imagine that somebody out there somewhere has all the answers. Neither is true.
Determination too often ends up being a rocket engine with no steering wheel, but drifting too far into guru-seeking behavior will rob you of the ability to make vastly complex strategic decisions based inadequate data in an instant, which is central to your job description as an entrepreneur. The middle way is to establish a way of evaluating and assessing problems as they arise. A series of startup mindset templates cannot help you predict what sorts of challenges you will face, but it will help you narrow down your most reasonable options in responding to them.
If you are still reading at this point, it’s very likely that you are smart enough to seek out advice and wise enough to ignore it when it doesn’t apply at the moment. In that case, you’ve already crossed the first bridge on the winding path to a healthy startup mindset.
Tangelo has helped many founders grow their dreams into commercial enterprises, but we’ve also seen too many brilliant models disintegrate, primarily due to a misalignment in the mindset of the founding team members. The speed of life in the startup microcosm can be so blinding, and the wider market so unforgiving, that once things start to shake apart, a crash becomes inevitable. The vast majority of young businesses can’t survive a crash that bad that early. One of our goals at Tangelo has been to try to predict those kinds of ruptures for the founders and teams we support. Even when the customers are there, the burn rate is low, and the MVP generates value, mindset can make all the difference in the trajectory of growth.
So how do market winners think differently? Try on one or more of these 7 startup mindset templates for size.
Steve Blank offered up this unsolicited advice in his article, Why You Need to Listen to Unsolicited Advice, “Treat advice and suggestions as a gift, not a distraction… When you're working at full speed just trying to get your job done, it's pretty easy to assume that advice and suggestions from others are just diversions. That's a mistake. At times, following up on them may make or break a career or a relationship.” The key word there is “relationship.” Even the best business concept in the world is competing for the potential buyer’s attention with demands from family, friends, work, obligations and a million other tasks jockeying for position on the priority list. Relationships define brand advocates, who define referral business, which is the engine of growth. The currency of relationships is advice. Don’t be careless with it.
MIT Sloan professor Bill Aulet, in his course on creating new enterprises, dispelled the persistent myth that entrepreneurs love risk. Successful ones don’t, or at least there is no correlation between risk-seeking behavior and success in business. What repeat founders do is take the risk out of risk as much as possible. They build unfair advantages so their infant startups have a protected space where they can thrive and grow. They accept closely calculated risks only when they have the best possible chance at winning. The premise of Aulet’s course is that entrepreneurship is simply a set of skills that can be learned by disciplined behavior and a commitment to repeatable processes. Based on these teachings, MIT has produced more than 30,000 active companies producing $1.9 trillion in annual revenues.
Bringing in diverse and underrepresented contributors at the earliest stage isn’t about philanthropy or righting the wrongs of the past. It’s about doing the smartest thing you can do for your business and the world. In order for us to do the best job at fostering the growth of new businesses, we’ve assembled a team that is radically diverse in race, gender, age, character/personality type, education, health, and socioeconomic background (including marital status, family situation, religion, etc). This is simply the best way to understand concepts in finer detail and generate a the right work environment to best suit each organization. A more diverse workforce drives economic growth, captures more of the consumer market, reduces turnover, and fosters innovation. Diversity in the boardroom and the workplace is critical to making the US economy more competitive on the global level.
In the beginning, everything’s wide open and you have a chance to start fresh. Don’t get complacent. You can be certain that operations are going to go stale immediately and people are going to revert back to whatever worked poorly in the past. We’ve seen how the most maladaptive behaviors of founders tend to get repeated and amplified by their direct reports. At the same time, new hires bring in bad habits from wherever they worked before. Even with documented ISO 9001 quality management systems in place, fires break out and proactive planning evaporates. As soon as you can, hard-code into operations a formal path for questioning your assumptions periodically. Sue Vestri, CFO at Greenphire, recommended asking stakeholders pointed questions and holding them accountable for regular gap analysis reviews. “Are you resisting new ideas or changes that will help the company scale? Understand where the holes in your organization are and develop strategies to address these gaps, for the short-term and long-term.”
Just as founders can’t do it alone, startups exist with a business ecosystem. They are integral to the communities where they form and grow. As you are, think about international customers, multinational supply chains and your greater community around the world; don’t neglect the impacts you have at home and the support systems that will sustain your growth. The 2018 Startup Genome Project concluded, “Local Connectedness—especially relationships with other founders—is strongly associated with higher startup performance.”
We feel very strongly about building local communities with startups and we are doing all we can to support founders in this area. We are growing a global community of local accelerator programs via our partnership with Backstage Capital, so that each startup becomes a link in a cultural movement. Think about what role your startup can play in giving back to your local community, helping to “rise-and-lift” those around you, wherever you are right now. We have encouraged these behaviors in partnering with Backstage via “Investor Days” in LA, San Francisco, New York and other cities to come. We bringing together early stage Headliners (aka our portfolio companies) with Investors who want to support them financially and strategically. Each success becomes a beacon and a lighthouse for under-represented founders to follow.
Mentors can be helpful to a startup, but to often a times, they are not enough. The word “mentor” can mean many different things, but if your mentor is simply a subject matter expert, they are not likely to be an expert on your individual psychology. When things get tough, you will really need someone on your side who you can trust to tell you the truth with clear, helpful realism. You will have to establish a stripped down communication channel where emotions take second place to data.
A true advisor doesn’t sugar coat feedback. This is someone who can point out your blind spots in relation to the hard data. While its true that for the company to evolve, founders need messaging that can keep them inspired and on task, too often the problem is that they don’t want to hear the facts about downside risks and worst case scenarios.
Everyone has emotional vulnerabilities and innate biases. Even if you find your advisor and that person has your best interests at heart, the hidden effects of power relationships can scramble their messages. Even better than an advisor is the development of a rigorous self-awareness. Consider this is part of the skeletal business structure, not an extra. The absence of it nearly always leads founders to make decisions based on faulty assumptions, bad habits, or fear.
On his startup advice blog, VC Ben Horowitz wrote, “By far the most difficult skill for me to learn as CEO was the ability to manage my own psychology. Organizational design, process design, metrics, hiring and firing were all relatively straightforward skills to master compared to keeping my mind in check. Over the years, I’ve spoken to hundreds of CEOs all with the same experience.” With so much else happening, it’s hard to set aside time to get a handle on your own mind before it endangers the business. Make the time because even seemingly minor decisions can have life-altering effects for your family, partners, employees and many other people in ripples radiating out from there. Everything matters, so make your decisions based by the best data you can get your hands on. Later in that same article, Horowitz casually notes, “Tip to aspiring entrepreneurs: if you don’t like choosing between horrible and cataclysmic, don’t become CEO.”
Of course, these are just templates to help you frame an appropriate response to the most common problems. You will know when it is time to forge a new way of thinking that that the world desperately needs. Every founder breaks some of the rules set before them, and by doing so they carve an original pathway into the market that many others, locally and globally, can follow. As your startup begins put on some weight and gain traction, you will learn how to expand from a startup to a mentor mentality. The world needs you and your great ideas, so don’t let an antique mindset stand in the way of the dent you could be making in the universe.
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