Many founders get to a point of frustration that things don’t seem to be going the would like. Often these complaints are felt in terms of people not being fast enough, not being accountable, or lacking the passion and drive they think they should have.
Most founders would not consider themselves geniuses. Most see themselves as ordinary. But if we look at what it takes to get a business off the ground, let alone something that can self-sustain, then we realise that at the very least they must be rather special, or an outlier. If founders were not outliers, there would be a lot more people doing it. But there’s not.
Because they do not see themselves as special, founders then project their own intelligence, passion, and ability to get things done onto everyone else. It does not really matter what the role is, they default to believing that everyone can, and should, be able to do it things with the same speed and quality that they would. This inevitably leads to conflict and tension.
Hence founders are going to need to find a way to balance the pace and ferocity in which they can do things with their expectations of what others they employ can do.
And there’s a nuance. You can still expect and drive excellence. You can still have high standards. You still should expect people to work hard and be competent. But they must be based in some level of reality. If you don’t, you’ll be in this forever-cycle of people come in, only to be spat out, leaving you frustrated and pissed off.
What do you want
As investors, when evaluating any investment opportunity we must understand if this combination of ingredients can lead to an opportunity of sufficient scale to generate venture returns (i.e. >10X). There are some opportunities that just cannot scale and there are some opportunities that can scale in an instant.
But even if the opportunity can scale, and venture returns are possible, we then have to work out if its likely that the team of people we entrust with our capital can, and want to scale. It is rare that we end up talking to founders that just want to build a little business. They come looking for venture capital because they generally know VC money is looking for significant growth.
Therefore, it’s more that we have to try and evaluate whether they can do what’s required to scale. Put another way: do these founders have the attributes to develop the capability required to scale a business? What is one things that often gets in the way of this? Unreasonable expectations combined with an inability to implement the internal systems and structures that will get ordinary people achieving extraordinary results. So, it really starts with you: where are your expectations, how do you behave when your expectations are not being met, and will you be able to build a results-machine that transcends your genius?
On ya bike
In this interview, Steve Jobs talks about how humans are way down the list in terms of speed and efficiency of movement when compared to other animals.
Humans are down the list of efficiency, but give a human a bicycle and it beats everything. I think this is a good analogy for what we are talking about here. Founders, with the speed and efficiency of cheetahs get businesses off the ground. However to build something great in the long term, founders have to find more ordinary people and put them on bicycles.
Founders that do not seek to do this, despite their desire to build something big and great, tend to spend their life in whirlpool of frustration at the lack of performance and commitment of people. This frustration often leads to destructive conflict, and the organisation becomes a revolving door of humans that have not stacked up to the founders’ expectations.
In reality, the organisational environment and culture has to be built like a machine if it wants to truly scale. It needs to move from genius/ special founders that gave life to the organisation, into something that systemically can take “ordinary” people and support them to achieve extra-ordinary results. Put good people on bicycles, moving in the same agreed direction.
This is how you get scale. This is how you get rapid growth.
If you are a founder feeling this frustration, now is time to point this energy into laying the ingredients to scale above your own abilities. Create something bigger than you. To a culture and climate where output, and the quality of that output is many times more than what you could do alone.
Here’s the response we often find when talking about some of these ideas. “Yes make sense, but it’s not the right time”. Once I get some of these issues sorted, then we’ll look at changing things up. The problem is a) it is never the right time and b) the frustrations you feel are the manifestations of some ingredients that are lacking.
1. Seek feedback
Seek feedback from others that you trust on your expectations. How close to reality are they? Again there are some nuances here. If you are happy with average or easily achievable, you’ll go backwards. There needs to be some “unreasonable” energy in the system, just make sure its not dysfunctional.
2. Top and tail
You’ll need to do some work that is bottom up within the organisation and there are some ideas below. But once you have strong growth, engaging people at the board/ advisory board level is important. People that have seen this movie before and that are removed from the day-to-day stresses and strains. Whilst people internally should have your best interests at heart, they also become too close to the situation. “When you’re in the painting, you can’t see the whole picture” is a common saying, so you need someone outside of this day to day painting.
3. Decision making and implementation
Successful companies have a core competency of being able to identify and solve problems quickly. Solving a problem requires deciding what to do about it, and then implementing the decision. If the founders are required for all decisions, they become a bottleneck. Implementing a managerial framework/ system that can decentralise decisions, so that decisions can flow fast away from founders is important.
But be careful. Proper decision making and authority requires controls, systems and processes in place. These have to be built out first. Without these in place, delegation becomes uncontrolled abdication, and abdication leads to big screw ups.
4. A culture of accountability
Parallel to a managerial framework that supports decentralised decision making and implementation, is creating a culture of accountability. Some demand accountability, but it doesn’t really work like that. Accountability is best. Accountability can be held when the ingredients for accountability exist. You can get some ideas in this Tribe Blog here.
Once you’ve accepted there are few on the planet that can product what you can with the quality of thought that you can, here are some ideas:
It’s a tough job being a founder. You must have an air of unreasonableness to build something great, but be careful you are not too unreasonable. You have to demand high standards, but being too demanding will drive good people to leave and create unnecessary conflict. You give it heart and soul but you need performance to transcend your abilities. You must have high attention to detail, but seeking perfection will lead to failure. You have to care for the humans but build the systemic systems to be less humanistic.
It’s a balance act that is hard. We know its hard, because if it was easy everyone would do it.