Five sure shortcuts for startups

As originally posted on

Howard Tullman

I’m not much of a fan of manufactured mission statements. Most of the pious platitudes and posters you see on office walls make me puke. These days you can probably buy a pro forma (and nicely laminated) mission statement for your business at Staples and a fill-in-the-blanks business plan as well. The reality is that you can’t ape your way to success. Ya gotta make your own way and tell your own story.

And, in an age of lousy listeners and mixed meanings, getting your message through to your team –clearly and consistently– is even more critical. Never make the mistake of thinking that once is enough. It pays to be obsessive about company communication because that’s the only way to be sure that the story sticks and that everyone in the boat is on the program as well. Say it once and the message is wasted; say it half a dozen times and they’ll start listen; say it all the time and they’ll take you seriously. Repetition is the most convincing argument.
You can’t accept someone’s smile and a nod and think that you got the job done. Never confuse good manners with agreement and don’t take anyone’s word for things that aren’t backed up by their actions. Especially when you’re trying to be a change agent, it’s important to take these things very personally. Apologies without changes in behavior are really just insults.

This kind of crucial communication is especially essential when you’re just starting out as the head of a new business. Everyone in the joint will be looking closely for signs and signals–keys and clues– trying to guess what’s in your head and to figure out where and how things are going. As if you know. They’re looking to you for leadership and guidance, to show them the vision, the path and how you’ll all get there. You’re on stage all day, every day, and your words and actions are contagious.

But even in a small shop, communication is a challenge –way harder than you think. And the stakes couldn’t be higher, especially at the start, when building the right culture is as important as building the rest of the business. As they say at NASA: “Off by an inch at launch; miss the moon by a mile.” Cultures are fragile in the formative stages and can curdle and go south in a very short time if they’re not curated, cared for, and mercilessly maintained–and enforced. Businesses very quickly become the behaviors they tolerate and, once that slippery slide starts, reversing those behaviors is almost impossible. This is not something that you can get right later. You get it right from the start, or you can forget about it.

But you can’t do this all by yourself or try to get face-to-face with everyone. Instead, you need a few shortcuts and step savers. The best leaders are great storytellers, but they are even better simplifiers. They’re architects of aphorisms and crafters of clichs. They’ve learned that the most powerful and memorable pronouncements are often the shortest. If you can’t say it in a sentence or two at most, it’s either not worth saying or you don’t understand the subject well enough to share it and sell it to your team, your clients, and your customers.

I’ve had thousands of employees in more than a dozen businesses and I can guarantee you that, even 10 or 20 years later, most of them can still finish my sentences when I’m spouting the old company lines. They aren’t Yogi-isms quite yet, but they’re on their way and they make a lot more sense. Every business needs its own (authentic) versions of these pithy phrases to act as ready reminders, great guardrails, and guides to the gospel.
I’ve got too many to share them all here, but I thought I’d give you a couple that have served me well for decades and are no less relevant or valuable today. Feel free to make them your own or adapt them to help you tell your own story.

Developers and especially engineers are shameless incrementalists. No feature or function is too excessive or unnecessary to add to the next release. They’ll load a feature whether we need it or want it or not. This is how we get products like Word or Excel, where 99% of the users have no clue how to use 99% of the embedded and layered functions, but we all suffer from the inflated size of the installs and the painful delays when we launch these monster programs. These guys are constantly inventing cures for no known diseases. They don’t understand that new users just wanna get started and not spend hours learning the ropes. Use this phrase as shorthand to head off feature creep and product bloat: very useful as well in swiftly stigmatizing utterly useless apps.

Problems come in packs–and three is not always a charm. Even at the best-run businesses, you can fall into the trap of quick fixes that address only the most obvious symptoms rather than the root causes. Typically, because everyone’s in a hurry, the next step is a rush to declare victory and a futile attempt to move on. Makeshift solutions, though, distract you from the real underlying problems, which rarely go away of their own volition. More often they fester and get worse.
In an age of growing interdependence, global connectivity, increasing complexity and the constant threat of unintended and unforeseen consequences, slowing down and taking a deeper look at things just makes sense. Einstein once said that he wasn’t so smart, he just stayed with problems longer. Perseverance pays off. And it’s also important to understand that “problems” are often just opportunities dressed up in overalls instead of Allbirds.

One of the reasons that many good entrepreneurs succeed is because they are narrowly and aggressively focused on the main opportunities they see directly in front of them. They pride themselves on knowing when to say “No” which–in the startup world– is especially difficult because you’re constantly confronted by hard choices, new and inviting distractions, and multiple tantalizing offers. But shutting yourself off like this can also be dangerous because, while lots of very bright entrepreneurs think that they’re on top of what’s going on in their fields and in the world in general, they’re badly mistaken.

First, because things are just moving too fast for anyone to keep up with everything, and second, because the things that are likely to supercharge or strangle your startup aren’t the things in front of you, or being pursued by your closest competitors. They’re the unexpected things– the outside entrants, the new market makers, the leap-frogging technologies–that are likely to be the most disruptive and/or devastating.
Keeping an ear to the ground and a watchful eye out as well is smart, but as often as not, the real business breakthroughs will be surprisingly random: a kid who pitches you a new idea in an elevator, a magazine article that strikes a chord, advances in techniques so far from your field that you only see them on 60 Minutes, and so on.
And, believe me, if your head’s 100% buried day-to-day in your business, these opportunities and inspirations will blow right by you. Look, listen and learn.

When you’re just starting out, short of cash, and trying to cover all the bases at the same time, there’s a terrible tendency to spread yourself a mile wide and an inch deep. Too little time and too many demands and mouths to feed. So, you start thinking that doing something (anything) or even just doing a little bit is better than sitting still and doing nothing. If you can’t do something right, at least do it quickly and don’t look back. Because aren’t startups all about speed?
This is a formula for failure and when you eventually do look back, you’ll see a track record littered with debits, leftovers and losers because you and your team haven’t learned the most basic rule of business: you should never try to do something cheaply that you shouldn’t do at all. The best businesses do a few things really well and build from there. They don’t do anything halfway or half-assed because these attempts never get you anywhere you want to go. Doing things to keep busy (or on the cheap) isn’t the same as doing business and getting the right things done.
No matter how much steak sauce you put on a hot dog, it’s still a wiener.

Everything in Startup Land takes longer and costs more than expected. The only things that are consistently underestimated are, of course, sales, revenues and profits. This is all about the necessary passage of time, which is that nasty little thing that keeps everything from happening all at once. You can only push on a rope so far and honestly it doesn’t matter how passionate you are, how hard you’re willing to work, how well-funded you may be, or whether you’ve got the very best idea since the invention of sliced bread. The boat is going to take a while to sail (and sell) and managing the realistic expectations of your team is just as important as delivering the straight scoop to your customers and prospects. It may, in fact, be even more important.
A little bit of early caution and some serious patience will pay serious dividends down the road. I realize that entrepreneurs rarely come with an on/off switch and that they’re all true believers, but you must realize that convincing yourself is easy. I call this the “that hooker really liked me” syndrome. Selling– especially something new and different– is time-consuming and hard. Even entrepreneurs so good that they could sell shoes to a snake learn eventually that nothing good happens overnight.
In the trenches of the real world, success is more a matter of diligent preparation, solid, consistent execution, and pathological perseverance than one of hope and vision. No one likes sitting on the phone making 50 calls a day, but that may be what’s required to build a business. A step at a time, one foot in front of the other, and always looking for the next hill to climb. Because nothing really matters until someone sells something to somebody.
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Drew Sauveur
Author: Drew Sauveur

Local business owner and resident of Durham Region

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