Hang around most groups of start-up entrepreneurs and you feel the vibe. There is a honed, urgent edge to the pace, a clarity around their milestones. A relentless exhilaration infusing their mission, matched by the sheer terror of failure. Such has been the stuff of legends and the flotsam of defeat.
The traditional advantages of a corporation – the ability to attract capital, talent and market scale – are challenged to degrees by a new generation of virtual, resourceful, and networked entrepreneurs. While the phases of growth for any business have their own natural characteristics, much can be lost when a business grows into what is more an institution than a venture.
The more time I spend coaching and investing in start-ups, the more I believe traditional businesses can challenge themselves to step up to the critical success factors that keep most entrepreneurs awake at night and passionate about making it.
- Chase your dream – relentlessly. This may sound fanciful to a large company, but dreams drive people, ignite ideas, fuel persistence. People don’t swear loyalty or assign passion to a strategic plan. They will work amazingly hard to realize an organization’s dream when it aligns with their own.
- Have a Big Idea. A really great idea that solves a really obvious problem or unmet emotional need. Without that clear line of sight between unique problem and unique solution, you are tangled in the bramble of hawking feature and function – and settling for price. Create a daily—yes, daily—discipline of sharpening your value proposition so what you have to offer is not just attractive, but irresistible, irreplaceable.
- Hire for talent, character and drive and stop worrying about their place on the org chart. Start-ups that make it have a deep sense of the unique abilities of each partner, and they let that play out in boundless ways. Shed consistent under-performers; keeping them only discourages the ones who want to improve.
- Rent, don’t buy. Most companies get weighed down by bureaucracies and back-office functions that are out of touch with the pulse and focus of the business. Skills available in the consulting and contract market live with the discipline of staying sharp to be competitive, and can give you much greater agility to shift the business and its resources as needed. As well, mentors and coaches (they are different) are hugely important for a learning entrepreneur, and no reason to think that learning stops when a business gets rolling.
- Be the customer. Market research and focus groups largely are passé. Start-ups have a fierce intimacy with their customers – they live in their world to gain a profound sense of their motivations, their pain, their style, their way of making decisions and living life. Their founders are out of the “office” a lot and are coming back with a visceral sense of what their business needs to be doing.
- Move. Momentum has an energy all its own. Set a crisp pace for decision-making. Sometimes good enough is good enough in terms of calling a shot and making it work.
- Eat risk for breakfast and you’ll have an appetite for it. Ideas and opportunities have an alarmingly short half-life. Yes, be clear-eyed and rational about risk, but by the time you’ve finished studying and mitigating every risk, someone else is in the market ahead of you.
- Find your breaking point. It is tempting to stay back from that line to avoid the pain of failure, but the understanding of our true capabilities lies at that line – and over time, just past where we think it is today.
- Sacrifice. Most entrepreneurs—at least the first time out—have bet the farm. The existential peril clears the mind of distraction. Lush severance packages at many public companies can dull this and create at least the perception if not the reality of a perverse incentive to put personal gain ahead of organizational success. There has to be some sweat equity in any real venture, and putting yourself on the line in some way can marshal the commitment of others and help them believe you are in this for the win.
- Don’t just do something, be something. Many young entrepreneurs are suffused with this notion—albeit at times quixotic—that they can change the world. Some do; some die trying. It’s a valiant quest, but it serves to remind us that people want to make a difference at any level. Good people yearn for significance, purpose, enduring impact. Give them that, and you probably will change the world after all.