Anyone who has changed jobs has undergone professional reinvention. Often it’s a chance to step-up and test yourself in a more senior role and other times it’s an opportunity to try something completely new. And new can be exhilarating and daunting in equal measure. My first point of reinvention was transitioning from soldier to banking call centre consultant after being unexpectedly discharged from the army due to a degenerative eye condition I never knew I had.
In entrepreneurship there is a continuum of reinvention where serial entrepreneurs live at one end and first-time founders live at the other. Serial entrepreneurs develop an understanding, largely through experimentation and failure, of how to repeatedly build and fund great teams that design and ship products that people love. With each venture, this process becomes quicker and more intuitive.
First-time founders (and I say this from experience) often begin their entrepreneurial journey with eternal confidence. This however can soon be shaken when strategies designed in the comfort of a secure job start to falter and resources start to dry up.
I’m fortunate to share some of my experiences as I mentor selected business school students and founders as they contemplate their first venture. I am strong of the belief that the greatest challenges of today and tomorrow will be solved by entrepreneurs. I also think it’s important for first time founders to be well positioned to take advantage of this point of reinvention.
So if you’re thinking of bringing a venture to life in 2016 (and I wish you every success), here are the five essential elements that my mentees and I focus on as they build their business:
1. Lead compassionately. If this is a foreign concept, read this once a week for the life of your venture. And in case this might not be obvious, compassionate leadership extends beyond your team(s) to how you help partnerships flourish and industries change their point of view.2
2. Apply laser focus to understanding who your customer is and obsess over their experience. When I say customer I don’t mean which brands you’ll partner or work with, I want to know which people will pay for your product or service. If you can’t tell me in 10 words or less who your customer is, don’t start a venture. And when it comes to obsessing over experience, avoid the word ‘user’ if you’re building a tech product, it de-humanises who you and your team are there to serve. Generic language like ‘user’ also has the effect of decreasing the empathy each team member needs to feel in order to design and deliver a great experience.
3. Start with co-founders, don’t go it alone. If you’re building a tech product make sure the founding team has a hipster (designer), a hacker (engineer) and a hustler (sales) to share the load. If you’re building a non-tech product or professional services company make sure you’re starting with at least one other person with complimentary skills and who wants to go the 100-hour work week distance. There’s too much for one person to properly consider, action and reflect on in a new venture.
4. Find time to reflect every day. Digesting learnings, particularly in high volumes as is often the case in new ventures, is difficult for even the most seasoned leaders. Reflection time is often a useful way to process and organise learnings and each person reflects differently. For me, writing this blog and exercising are the two ways I reflect.
5. Use free tools and resources to make your life easier.
A closing note. Embrace reinvention for what it is. It’s about growing as a leader and learning, a lot of learning. So rely on the skills you bring to the table but don’t for a minute think that they’ll be enough. If you combine impatience to deliver great experience with an insatiable appetite to learn, you’ve just increased your odds of success.