Vision needs strategy

Most startups are founded on a vision; a wish to help bring about change to something in the world. But many lack a coherent strategy of how to get there in the end.

How come? The difference is in the meaning of the various words.

A vision is like a desert mirage. It’s aspirational, something we can imagine but is not real – yet.

A strategy is a plan to find the waterhole in the desert, so to say. It doesn’t have to be a complex plan with a lot of moving parts, but it needs to be a plan that can – if nothing else – convince people that not only might you be on to something. You actually also have some kind of idea of how to capture it.

Many startups frown at the word ‘strategy’ and doing strategy work is a pretty long way down the list of priorities. But while it’s true that execution is key and should take precedence over ‘thought’-work, they still need to set aside time to develop the plan.

Otherwise how are they ever going to make it to the fulfillment of the vision?

By luck? By endless trial-and-error?

Of course not. So get the strategy that supports the vision in place. Make it flexible based on what you learn on the journey, but nevertheless utilize it as a map to get to the destination, you’re longing for.

(Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash)

Time your own luck – now

Getting a business off the ground of course has a lot to do with the idea and what pain you’re looking to solve for customers. But it is also about timing and luck.

Some people say that you can make your own luck. And perhaps that is true. To an extend.

What you certainly can do is look around you at what’s going on. And if you look at the world right now, there are at least 3 good reasons, as I see them, why this might be a great moment to time your luck so to say and venture into something new.

First of all, a lot of incumbents in different industries are busy elsewhere handling the fallout from the pandemic with disrupted supply chains, increasing prices on goods, lack of talent etc. They’re way to busy with that to innovate in earnest themselves let alone keep a keen eye on what you’re doing.

Second, there are a lot of change afoot after the pandemic. New trends have emerged, new patterns of behaviour – some of which we still need to see the resilience of after the pandemic eases, mind you – have got on the radar etc. And with that new pains, needs and demand for new, innovative solutions that you might be able to provide.

And third, there is the work-from-home thing. While some people yearn to get back to normal office life, there are also millions of people out there who feel the opposite. They are ready for a change. Maybe even for a move into entrepreneurship. So when I said above that incumbents might have a hard time finding the right talent, it could be an entirely different matter for you.

So what are you waiting for?

(Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash)

You need mutual respect

Over the past year I have been spending a lot of time trying to understand how to help researchers at universities bring great research into market through spinouts. And I wanted to share my experiences in a series of posts.

The first post on ownership structure is here, and this is going to be about the founder team and an important cornerstone in making a team gel:

Mutual respect for what each member brings to the table.

In my mind great founder teams have never been about sharing the same background, friendships from school, hobbies or the like. For me great founder teams have always been about getting a team together with a shared passion for solving a big problem and a skillset and experience that compliments rather than overlaps.

I have always held this belief also when I worked at corporates hiring new team members; get people in that are better at what they are going to help out with than me or anyone else already in the team and provide them with the room and mandate to maneuver.

In many respects it was about filling out the blanks based on what the business needed to succeed. It was about looking at what it would take to succeed with the mission.

The same principle should be applied to founder teams of researchers from universities. No questions about it.

Most often researchers will be brilliant at what they do. Essentially thats why they are researchers employed at universities. It also implies that there are other things they are not equally good at, and for many understanding and building a business outside the walls of university campus is one of the things they are not particular skilled at.

So they need help. Preferably they need outside help from people who knows and have tried (and perhaps even also failed) to build a business, and who in turn know next to nothing about researching. Again, very little overlap – mostly complimentary.

In most cases researchers will understand and accept this, but there is one potential problem; creating a team culture, where there is mutual respect for all necessary contributions to succeed.

It is not uncommon to meet researchers who have spent years on their research, and who naturally place a huge, indispensable value on this. Sometimes these same people can have a very hard time placing the same kind of value on a new member of the founding team, who will essentially be looking after the business side of things and ensure that the spinout actually has legs on the other side of the university wall.

This creates friction and the potential for an A and a B team inside a very small team to start with. And this is poisonous.

And not only that. It is also flat wrong:

Even though researching is hard and coming up with breakthrough innovations is super hard, making it work in the real world afterwards is perhaps even harder. Because while a great researcher might apply his knowledge and experience extensively in the lab and be really focused and use all the time needed, a lot of the outcome of the research is somewhat within the control sphere of the researcher. A lot of it basically comes down to the individual.

The same can not be said about making it work in the real world. Not only do you need skilled people with lots of experience. There are also endless moving parts outside the university walls that it can often be hard to predict and that you need to navigate in order to stay afloat, let alone succeed.

In essence it is a moving target, where everything changes in an instant, and you need to adapt to that. It is a whole different level of uncertainty and anxiety, which it takes great skill – and often also lots of luck – to navigate successfully.

Getting the business side right is a navy seal skill. Almost literally. And given that it makes absolutely no sense inside a team to run the risk of elevating someone at the expense of someone else. It creates friction, will ultimately make the person being degraded leave and the spinout tank before it can live up to any of its original promise.

The good thing about all the above is that there is a really simple fix:

Mutual respect.

The realization that in order to everybody succeed, everybody needs to feel valued and appreciated as key players in the onwards journey.

If you don’t truly feel like that in the spinout, you’re working to create, stop and fix it immediately. Or drop the spinout completely.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Be problem-driven

There are quite a few really good arguments for why you should focus on the problem rather than the solution, when you’re trying to build a successful company. But there is one that I think takes the prize as the most powerful one:

By focusing on the problem, you broaden the opportunity for yourself, your company and your future success.

Why?

Because you start being less solution-focused. Not agnostic as such because there will always be something that you do that you need to put into the product to give it the real edge it needs. But less solution-focused.

You may start out developing and shipping one product, get a good reception and perhaps even some decent traction. And once you can see that the core fundamentalt of what you’re doing seems to resonate in the market, you can lift your gaze and start thinking about what’s next.

And this is where focusing on the problem rather than the solution enters the picture:

By focusing on the problem, you will see more opportunities just by looking. And others may present themselves that you would otherwise not have noticed. And this gives you opportunity.

Instead of being strong in a niche, you can become stronger in a space – and maybe even grow to become dominant of an entire industry.

Because you chose a laser like focus on the problem.

Looking in retrospect, most companies don’t become wildly successful by just doing one thing or having one product. They become wildly successful, because they understand the market they are in, the jobs, pains and gains of their customers and constituents – and the problem space they’re working on.

You should apply that approach to yourself and your company too.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Find your ambassadors

When trying to build a powerful startup team from scratch, I have found there is one trait it’s hugely important to have in every co-founder;

Ambassadorship.

With that I mean a person who will take the torch, carry it everywhere and be an unconditional spokesperson for what your team is setting out to accomplish.

The key advantage of having ambassadors all around you is that you will not be left to do all the preaching. While it is energizing in the very beginning, you can quickly both become tired of preaching, and at the same time you can get concerned as to why it is that you seem to be the only one doing so.

With ambassadors all around you, you’re spreading the message. As a team. That’s super important.

But how then do you figure out when you don’t have the right ambassadors around you? Well, that’s tricky. Because the most honest answer probably is when your startup hits a really rough patch.

If you don’t have the right ambassadors, the team is going to crack under the stress, worst case disintegrate completely. That’s when you realize than in essence you may have been the only one holding everything together (also even if you might have thought otherwise).

If you do have the right ambassadors, they will be looking for solutions to your woes. Perhaps even above and beyond what seems doable or logic. Because they want what you have set out to achieve so bad, they are willing to do whatever to keep the dream alive.

I realize those are pretty stark contrast. But in reality I also think it reflects just how important having ambassadors around you is.

At the end it can be make or break for your team and your startup.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Commercialization as a science

When you’re working with researchers and/or developers, it can be super easy to completely focus on the research, the science and the product it is all (potentially) leading towards and the inherent value herein. And that nothing else matters to your future success.

But that is a flawed assumption. Cool technology doesn’t cut it on its own. It needs a complete ecosystem around it to have any chance of succeeding.

Developing such an ecosystem is super tough. There are many moving parts that changes all the time. And when you account for the human factor, change of opinions, irrational decision making etc, it becomes extremely complicated very quickly.

Navigating and succeeding in that maze outside the lab is a science in itself. And it should be dealt with, rewarded and appreciated in just the same way as we have the deepest respect for those working behind the scenes to develop the technology.

It takes two to tango. It takes tech and commercial acumen to succeed.

One cannot exceed without the other. And vice versa.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Startup-life as football fan

People who know me well also know that for the past close to 30 years, I have nurtured a deep passion for Blackburn Rovers Football Club. (Heck, this season our Danish supporters club even have a first team player sponsorship between us).

From a distance I have witnessed ups and downs (and lets face it; the last 10 years have been most on the downslope), and I have felt both the joy and the pain of being so much into something you just passionately want to end up well.

When I think of it, I think that a lot of what you experience on the emotional side as a passionate fan is similar to the emotions you go through when trying to build and be successful with a startup;

A few times the team will be firing on all cylinders, dominate the opposition and score a plethora of goals to the extend that you almost get tired of winning.

Sometimes the team will be playing really well but be unable to get the ball across the line for a goal. Super frustrating times and instead of feeling you at least got a draw and a point, you will rue the two points lost from the win that was not to be.

Sometimes your team plays well for 88 minutes, commits a really howler – or the goalkeeper forgets he can use his hands – and you will loose at the death of the game.

Sometimes you will just get run over by a superior side, and the most important job is how to put it behind you and move ahead with confidence to the next game and the next opportunity.

And sometimes you will be able to pull off the upset of the season, but superior opposition – and have absolutely no idea how you did it but still delight from your triumph.

But most of the times the team will be in there battling back and forth over 90 minutes plus added time, feeling on top in some periods of the game and hugely under pressure during others. And the scoreline most likely won’t reflect the amount of effort put into achieving whatever boring result, you end up with.

But there’s still passion, energy and tenacity to get it right and ultimately win. And you never, ever lose hope that your team will prevail in the end.

(Photo: Blackburn Rovers Football Club)

The problem with OKR

I love OKR’s as a concept. And God knows I have been trying time and time again to make them and associated tracking apps and services work for me and my team.

But alas; I have failed every single time.

It is not that setting up OKRs is super hard; everybody can define and objective and a set of results to get to the objective. But sticking with it and having the discipline to work with it? That’s a whole different ball game.

For a startup context I think one of the reasons for this is that startup life is inherently messy; while you may have objectives, goals and other variations of KPIs (you should always have some of these) the journey towards them are never linear.

In practical terms what this means is that while you were addament you had it right, when you set your goals, they rarely survive when you fast forward to a future date. In fact, everything at this point in time might look substantially different.

I am fully aware that with OKR it is entirely possible to define your time periods, number of OKRs etc entirely as you wish. But if you’re changing them every other day what’s the point of having them to track against in the first place?

What I have found to work better is to have some pretty non-negotiable KPIs that are pretty specific but at the same time broad to enable all sorts of paths and journeys leading up to them.

1-2 on a six months basis is enough, I would argue. Especially at a super early stage, where having too many objectives will most likely only result in a lack of focus.

Agree on those and agree on providing a weekly or bi-weekly short status mail where you mention the points, the most important developments since last time, your confidence and actions until next update, and you’re set.

Forget everything else.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)