What are some avoidable mistakes that founders make in their first companies? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
Letting culture emerge vs. creating it deliberately
Every company has a culture; a set of shared values and behaviors that define how people interact and work together, who advances in the organization, and what is considered important. All too often, the culture of a company emerges based on personalities in the room; it's as if the various personalities "fight" to see what behaviors emerge as acceptable and strongest personality wins! Morale suffers and people leave.
In contrast, the best entrepreneurs make the company culture a priority, and invest the time to deliberately shape the shared values of the organization.
Start by taking an inventory of the values you truly believe in. Not the aspirational values of things you wish you could be ("excellence in all things!") but the real list of core beliefs that define the kind of culture you will be truly happy working in and leading. Discuss them with your co-founders and early team members, and find the areas of agreement. Discuss the behaviors that should be present when those values are real in the company. Write the values down and put them in a place where you will see them and be reminded of them often.
Finally, look for ways to make the values visible to the company. At PLAE, we give out quarterly awards for people who exemplify our values such as teamwork, respect for others, and being bold. We use the values to screen candidates and in every personnel decision. We talk about the values often in meetings. I try to 'catch people' living our values and call it out to thank them.
The investments are subtle, but the payoff is huge: you and your team will enjoy each other and the whole long startup marathon a lot more.
Waiting too long to fire people
When I look honestly at the ways I've upped my game after almost 15 years as a startup CEO, this is a big one. Saying goodbye to people is about the hardest thing to do in business. It's always hard disappointing people. Like many first-time founders in my last company, I tended to wait too long out of optimism (hoping things would improve), friendship, or concerns about morale ("what will the rest of the team think?")
In the end, there are 3 reasons to let people go: they can't do the job, they are disruptive to the company, or they take too much effort to manage. While people can and do improve, most of the above reasons get worse over time, not better. I've learned over the years to listen to my gut much faster on personnel issues - but especially the goodbyes - with forthrightness and speed.
Time and experience unfortunately do not make the actual conversations easier (at least not yet for me) - but the company is better for faster and decisive action. The reality is that, most of the time, the team already knows who is under performing or who isn't a great fit culturally. Invariably, when you finally take action you are more likely to hear "thank you!" or "what took you so long?" than pushback from the rest of the team. In any case, this is ultimately a chance to re-emphasize for the rest of the team that you as Founder/CEO really care (ie, the company values) and what it takes to be successful in the company.
Waiting too long to start selling
Probably due to the strong engineering culture in many startups, or perhaps because it can feel hard to go ask for money, there is often a tendency among new entrepreneurs to spend a lot of time on the product or service and put off actually selling the product. Too often that leads to wasted time - features and functions that weren't needed after all - greatly slowing down progress in the market and burning up precious capital.
The solution is to engage customers immediately - way before "launch." At Ariba where I was an early employee, our first online (b2b) procurement product was built and launched with a consortium of customers our "Advisory Council" including Cisco, Visa and others. They had already signed on to real contracts and were paying real money while the first product release was still in development... and their guidance helped create a product that was soon in use by dozens of the Fortune 100 and a $1B+ per year run rate. At NetBase, where I was Co-founder and CEO, we used the same approach to launch a new product in partnership with Coca-cola, Pepsi, P&G and others.
But I think this is true in B2C businesses too. At PLAE, we engaged our community online long before our first launch. We sought out input and collaboration with people, and the learning was invaluable toward making a better product, faster.
Bottom line: You will create a better product and business, and save months or years, and potentially millions of dollars in venture capital, if you start selling much, much earlier than many first-time entrepreneurs do!
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