Avoid hellish bureaucracy

No matter what framework you uphold to justify your decisions, stakeholders will typically acknowledge the logic of it, but in practice ignore it.

The Great Silence, Brad Dunn on Product Coalition

It is so easy to be lean and mean when you’re small and go heavy and lazy when you get bigger. In one of lifes great mysteries otherwise capable people transform from being efficient and getting things done to being caught up in infights and bureaucracy with limited progress to show for it.

I have often wondered why this is so? Why is it that even agile entrepreneurial organizations have a tendency to become stuck, as they grow bigger? Is there some kind of inflection point for startups in which, when they reach a certain size, the fundamentals of the culture just change, and you go from focusing on customers and solving their pains to being stuck in a world of your own organizational pain? I am tempted to say yes.

Maybe this has something to do with the stakes getting bigger or the stakeholder map expanding. When people invest their time and money in helping you out, complexity grows. Relationships need to be forged, managed and balanced. Especially the balancing part takes time and skill, and getting those things right take away time, ressources and focus from what you were doing before that essentially brought you into the position, where you could take more people and money on.

It’s probably impossible to think of a threshold for when this transformation happens, and it’s equally impossible to come up with a ‘one size fits all’ fix to it. But I do think there is one general piece of advice for to startups worrying about becoming too complacent and bogged down in bureaucracy:

Keep hold of the people in your team, who are die-hard executers. Provide them with the freedom to operate and do what they do best. Grant them the flexibility to devise their own ways of scaling their efficiency, and resist the temptation to step into their way.

You need to have someone on board to provide direction and guidance for where your startup should go on it’s growth journey. In essence that’s a job for you in the founder team. Don’t fall into the trap of starting to overthink processes and stay clear of the idea that frameworks are the silverbullet to solve anything. They’re often not.

Bad ass execution have a tendency to move things forward. So keep traveling down that road.

(Photo by the blowup on Unsplash)

Getting inspired by others

How many times have you met a startup, which has claimed to be ‘Uber for X’, ‘AirBnb for Y’ or another version of something already in existence and hugely popular? Many times. And every time it has been cringeworthy.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is all bad taking your cues from others, who have threaded the path before you and been successful at it. Far from it.

The difference is in how you do it.

You should NEVER do it in public. That’s the first lesson.

If you want to take inspiration and map your journey against someone who have done it before, do it in a war room of sorts; a place – physical or digital – where you can lay their playbook out, study it, plot your initiatives and try to follow their plan forward.

Pick the best, optimize it to your own reality so you get a feel for it and use it in your operations. By all means. If for no other reason because you have validation from those who have gone before you that the approach is effective.

Don’t talk about what you do. Just execute. Most people with even limited insight into the market will quickly spot the resemblance, but since your not being vocal about it, it will just seem like you have been inspired by the way others have done before you.

That’s happening all the time in the world of business, and it’s a perfectly cool way of executing your way to success.

(Photo by “My Life Through A Lens” on Unsplash)

Keep winning

When looking at B2B startups, it’s super easy to get impressed by a well-executed growth model that brings new customers in in droves. Of course it is; sales is an art and can be a super tricky one at that, so every time a startup succeeds in closing a deal, it’s reason to celebrate.

But what I personally like to celebrate more is their ability to keep their customers happy by ensuring a high retention and thus a super low churn.

That – to me – is the most powerful indicator of a startup delivering real value to customers by successfully solving a problem, the customer has.

When I meet with startups there are always convincing narratives about how to find and attract new customers and close the deal. But with startups who already have their first product in market, I often find that the story becomes slightly less convincing, when we talk about retention and churn.

Sometimes the story about retention becomes so weird or non-logical that I just assume that the startup in question has a real problem in that department, and they are more than reluctant to share that with me. That – in all honesty – is a huge flag.

Having to work hard on retaining your customers is hard work and honest work. Because even though you may have a great product, lots of other startups or big corporations are out to get your customers with everything from a slightly better product to one that is just a lot cheaper (and perhaps even loss making) than what you have to offer.

You need to have a plan for keeping retention high, and you need to execute on it like your life depended on it. To some extent it does; at least the prospects of your startup ever becoming a viable business.

You need to show that you understand what’s going on, and that you understand what you need to do to keep your customers engaged, happy and finding the best value in your product. And you need to always optimize that approach to ensure that your win didn’t only happen once, when you closed the deal, but that by keeping the customer, you essentially have what it takes to keep on winning.

When you have that, it’s truly worth celebrating.

(Photo by Arisa Chattasa on Unsplash)

Real ‘Best Practice’

Best practice is NOT to do what you did the last time and the times before that.

Best practice is using what you have learned in doing what you now know you SHOULD have done the last time, which – in hindsight – would have given you a better outcome.

The first – and most often used version – is for the lazy ones, and it will ultimately stop being effective.

The latter one is for those who are deeply involved in what they’re doing and are committed towards continuous improvement in everything that they do.

In order to get a better outcome – next time.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Always think about strategy

When you’re busy executing on tasks, it can be super easy to forget about setting time aside to think about strategy.

But you should. For a number of reasons.

First of all you need to always make sure that what you’re working on is taking you in the right direction. There is the old saying that while a manager is the one leading the struggle through the jungle, the leader is the one making sure you are in the right jungle to begin with.

Be the leader.

Second, thinking about strategy is what keeps you curious about the market you are operating in. It keeps you focused on your customers and their needs, on the competition and on emerging trends in technology and behavior.

All of these inform what you should be doing. And most importantly: They enable you to course correct on the fly.

Third, thinking about strategy on the go is what keeps you from having to start your strategy all over from scratch again. It enables you to mold and update your strategy, as you go, based on learnings. And thus captures the value of all your hard work – even the work that didn’t end according to plan.

Finally, thinking about strategy broadens your horizon and keeps you sharp. Think about it as essential training; with enough training you go from being a simple recruit to a Navy Seal. It’s just a matter of discipline and hard work.

So don’t ever let anyone tell you, you shouldn’t think about strategy, ok?

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Control vs success

There is nothing as potent to pave the way to success as being in control.

There is nothing so blocking to success than to insist on being in control.

To some being in control is an all positive thing; it enables you to define the path to follow forward and ensure the necessary decisions are being made and the focus is on relentless execution towards a goal. The bigger, the better.

To others being in control comes with such a daunting sense of responsibility that you would rather not have it and potentially not do anything at all for the sheer fear of what happens if or when something goes wrong.

Some loathe not being able to be in control and will walk away from a potential opportunity just for the lack of being able to be in control. Others loathe being controlled and not being in a position to challenge the course of action, i.e. exert control, and will refrain from putting themselves into that position.

And some just hate that excess talk about control can ultimately block every path to future success.

Because at the end of the day some sort of control is needed to achieve great success.

Because if there is one thing that remains certain, it is that great success does not arise from a completely lack of control.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Trello and OKR

When trying to build a startup ground up, there are a ton of different tasks that need to get done. And keeping track of it all is essential.

But how do you do that efficiently?

For me I have resorted to using a combination of Trello and OKR.

We use OKR’s to define our objectives. We essentially view those as desired outcomes where it’s up to the people involved to do whatever is necessary or efficient to achieve said outcome.

It turns our that Trello is pretty good at keeping track of those objectives. And in a very simple way:

What we do is essentially to take our objective, create a new board and then name that board with the text of the objective.

By doing that we have a consolidated view of objectives, and we can dig into the individual objective, define key results and work on those in a kanban way, while we comment, assign tasks across team members and much more.

The key here is that if we want to get an update on where we’re currently at with the work towards a specific objective, we can just dig into that specific board.

Of course it still takes discipline to work within the confines of Trello and make sure that it gets used, and we’re still rehearsing on making sure that happens.

But so far our experiences are good. And I highly recommend it as an efficient method for keeping track of your progress against your OKRs.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Idea or execution?

Rocket Internet, the famous German copycats of popular digital services, is delisting from the Frankfurt Stock Exchange.

This has prompted some to claim that their time is up, and that their model of copying others successful ideas was never a viable one to begin with.

But that’s totally not true. Zalando alone is amble proof.

Instead what we could use this opportunity to discuss is what’s more valuable: Idea or execution? And by extension: What is the hardest one to get right?

If we look at it from that perspective there is very little doubt in my mind that Rocket Internet is a powerhouse when it comes to execution. What they may lack in brilliant, novel ideas, they more than make up for in razor sharp relentless execution.

And what makes the difference at the end of the day is execution; what actually gets out there and it’s ability to generate value for all parties concerned.

This doesn’t mean that you should only focus on being stellar at execution. Because what at the end of the day move us forward as society is brilliant novel ideas executed really well.

So it’s really not a question about idea or execution. It’s a question about idea AND execution. And realizing that it takes just as much (often actually more) to execute really, really well than it takes to come up with that spark of brilliance to begin with.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)