Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Transitioning into senior management – Part 17: leadership in startups – 1

Posted in job search and career development, startups by Timothy Platt on July 18, 2011

This is my 17th installment in a series on joining and working on an executive team (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development, postings 158-173 for parts 1-16) and it is also very distinctly a part of my ongoing accumulation of postings on startups and early stage businesses.

As I noted in Part 1 of this series, “senior, C level managers can find themselves in this role with absolutely no management or supervisory experience at all.” I will add that this is probably a lot more common an occurrence than is its extreme alternative where highly seasoned senior executives suddenly decide to build a first-for-them startup.

Seasoned senior executives who have worked their way up through the ranks in established businesses are less likely to come up with new and disruptive product or service concepts and the drive to break out on their own to turn them into working businesses. That is more likely going to come from people still primarily working hands-on, in the technology and product and service area they wish to break new ground in – people who see their career path forward as best coming directly from their own effort and from their own initiative. So I start my discussion of leadership in the startup context with the first time, or less than experienced manager turned business leader in mind.

• Do not take your new title too seriously. Chief _fill in the blank_ sounds impressive and so does saying that you are building the next world shaking startup when you are talking with your friends. But a title is just a title and it only gains meaning as you succeed in actually building that business.
• Never try substituting vaguely defined hope or aspiration for organization and accomplishment, and never, ever start dividing up the equity value before you have built it. I have seen startup founders spend more time and energy discussing who gets what percentage of equity then they expend in actually making that proposed equity share have meaning.
• As a startup CEO or a non-CEO CXO on the founder’s team you have one goal that you really have to pursue and only one – effectively translating your product or service vision into a monetizable item and building an organization to make that translation a reality. Anything else is distraction.

Read my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development for the series included on management, and read my Startups and Early State Businesses and Business Strategy and Operations postings too. I do not claim to have all the answers, but I do raise questions and issues and I do offer some mentoring advice. Join your local chamber of commerce or at the very least seek out advice from members of the business community who have built businesses. Find a mentor so you do not have to expend time, effort and what liquidity you have, rediscovering the basics as to what can and cannot work for you. And keep your eyes firmly set on your goal of building a business that can and will turn your product or service dream into a reality.

I find myself thinking of my ongoing experiences working with startups and early stage businesses as I write this, and of where I have seen new businesses and first time business founders get into trouble. The above comments certainly connect into this, but if I was to cite any one deficit area, and with a simple title it would be “lack of organizing focus.” I have written about business plans repeatedly in this blog and certainly in the startup context. I would start working on this working blueprint for building your business when initially developing your plans to start a business, as a detailed reality check as to what you can do and how best to do it. When I wrote my series: Online Store, Online Market Space, I held off until Part 9: business plans and filing in the gaps before discussing this topic. But think in terms of real world customers and their needs, and real marketplaces you would find them in when bringing your proposed products or services into focus, and start at least outlining your business plan from the very beginning.

WARNING: And remember that some details can be all but impossible to fully plan for in advance. That definitely includes anticipating in advance, your initial primary customer base if you have a truly disruptive advance in mind in what you would offer. You may very well find it to be first picked up upon in the marketplace by an unexpected consumer, with a disruptive but significant use for it. Plan and analyze, and with a goal of efficiently using all of the resources you have available for building your business – even if you do so with flexibility as a core process so you can anticipate the unexpected and unplanned-for.

I want to take this a bit out of the abstract to finish this posting, and I cite the semiconductor industry startups outlined in:

• Christensen, C.M. (2000) The Innovator’s Dilemma. Harper Business.

The major market share businesses in this industry going into each of the major, revolutionary technology advances discussed, always failed to effectively enter and lead that next major generation forward in technology. It was always startups that succeeded in defining and building that new technology base and that new semiconductor industry. And in virtually every single case cited in this book, at least a significant part of the early market for the next advance was driven by the demands and needs of previously absent customers – who could not use the older technologies to meet their needs, but for whom the next generation technology was their business solution.

As a new and perhaps even first time manager starting a new business venture, you have a lot of steep learning curves to master. Get help and seek out mentors and advice. Look for new business incubator support from community development organizations. Look for ways to speed up your progress while avoiding some of the pitfalls and problems. And seek to find that balance between organization and focus and planning, and flexibility in the face of the unexpected.

• And find the joy in what you are doing, because if you are a real entrepreneur you are living your dream.

My next installment in this series is going to turn to consideration of the more seasoned executive and the differences and similarities between being a serial entrepreneur, and an executive seasoned in established businesses.

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