I recently had a long conversation with a founder friend who had worked herself to the edge of burnout. A yearlong period of slow growth and stagnation had left her frustrated, exhausted, and ready to give up.
As a startup founder, executive, and adviser over two decades, I can totally relate. I can't count the number of times I've been racing toward the brick wall of mental and physical collapse--brought on by the mantra of winning by working harder than everyone else.
Along the way, though, I learned that there's a huge difference between creating a culture of hard work and creating a culture of results. So before you start making ill-advised pivots borne out of mental desperation, ask yourself which of those two outcomes you're chasing.
Hard work has its limitations
I'm not here to downplay the importance of hard work; quite the opposite. Hard work is the minimum requirement for a startup to keep its doors open. I've actually seen too many businesses fail because their leaders just assumed that things would work out in their favor.
What I want to make perfectly clear, however, is that hard work alone won't make your business successful. This is the trap I see a lot of entrepreneurs fall into after they get their first taste of success with a new business. The belief is that they worked very hard to get where they are, and working even harder will get them even farther.
But here's the thing: A startup doesn't get paid for mastering a commodity. A startup gets paid for harnessing innovation.
Hard work should be reserved for short bursts of mitigation
In every business, new and old, there will always be outlier events that threaten to wrestle defeat from the jaws of victory. It could be a competitor you didn't see coming, a large customer prospect overstating your chances of getting their business, or even your best employee going to work for someone else for more money.
All of these things hurt, and all of them will require your company to scramble to stay afloat, let alone get ahead. But all of those events were already disasters waiting to happen. When you're heads-down all the time, you aren't being preventive about catching those events and mitigating them. In fact, you're probably asking for them.
Long term, your strategy should be to perpetually reduce the likelihood of catastrophic events and the hard work needed to fix them. Here are seven recommendations I make to every new business leader (and some of the experienced), to help keep their head level until they need to push the emergency button.
1. Build a great team and delegate.
It's the death-spiral phenomenon: We're working too hard to take the time to hire, we're moving too fast to take the time to delegate, and we end up in a spiral of more and more work until the whole system comes crashing down on us. A great team is the primary factor in your investability, productivity, and eventual success. Don't waste this opportunity because you're working too hard to focus on it.
2. Solve your customer's problems creatively.
Innovation is the difference between a scalpel and a sledgehammer. When you're building a new company and a new product, creative strategies and solutions return better results than brute force methods. It takes time and space to get into a creative mindset, so don't just preach creativity; build the proper creative time and space into your company culture.
3. Narrow your solution and your market.
Instead of trying to be all things to all customers, say no to some things, and focus on what your company is good at. Tailor those functions into a package that addresses a market that is most likely to buy. Quality over quantity in the short term means better results in the long term.
4. Develop a proactive competitive strategy.
Pay attention to your competition, but stop reacting to what they're doing and instead make them react to you. Let them do all the hard work of winning a few battles while your company innovates to win the war. A half-baked, rushed solution released as a competitive stopgap will only highlight your weaknesses. Instead, focus on the long term and beat them to the next level.
5. Be wrong often.
Shooters gotta shoot. It doesn't matter how many times they miss. Don't spend more time second-guessing than acting. Make mistakes, and learn to apologize when you do.
6. Innovate internally.
If you're going to grow from 10 employees to 100 and eventually 1,000 and beyond, you're guaranteed not to be able to hire the perfect person for every position. Adapt your company culture so the expert work becomes less expert--automate it, document it, but, most important, build threads through your organization that reward exploiting efficiencies instead of ignoring them. The earlier you start doing this, the less painful it becomes at later stages.
7. Be strong when plans flame out.
There are always going to be external issues that you have no control over. And there is always going to be feedback that makes you rethink your entire model. You don't have to act every time there's pressure, and you don't have to fill every customer need and request. Find the wisdom to know when pivots are required and when to stay the course.