Have you got a sales quota?

The thing that truly separates a corporate job from a job at the startup is the chance to have an outsized impact on solving a problem for customers. More often than not the distance between problem, potential solution and the ability to get that solution in front of customers to test out is way short for a startup than for a corporate.

But there is also another thing that separates the two. And it’s one which is directly linked to the above discussion about impact. It is the opportunity to see outsized returns on the investment of time and ressources you put into succeeding.

Having an incentive programme at a startup is pretty normal. It’s a part of the overall compensation and incentive plan in the company, which helps to ensure that the right talent can be attracted and that people stay motivated outside what their immediate role requires of them. But being part of an incentive programme is perhaps not enough. Perhaps we need to take it one step further.

How about we talk about assigning measurable sales targets or quotas outside of the sales team? What would happen if we started putting the same kind of targets on fx product peoples backs as we do with sales? Would that make a difference for the product, it’s ability to delight customers and – following on from that – generate sales? Perhaps it would.

It has always seemed quite odd to me that a lot of startups despite having a shared stated vision and mission seldom follow it up by assigning specific market facing targets but instead confine these to sales. I know that all departments have their own set of internal KPIs they’re working hard to achieve, but since you could easily argue that startup success is impossible without market facing goals, it makes little sense that they are not evenly distributed across the organisation.

Of course sales should always be accountable for turning leads into deals and revenue that can be booked. But sinde the core foundation of sales is the availability of an attractive product that delivers value above and beyond what customers pay for it, it makes perfect sense to assign the same kind of quotas to both product and R&D. After all, we all have a shared interest in becoming a success in the market place.

Naturally, the first couple of arguments against this line of thought is that people outside sales are not exactly motivated by doing sales (hence the reason they chose a different line of work) and they don’t always feel empowered to influence how and under which terms the product is being sold to customers. I have full sympathy for these arguments, but I think there are ways to work around it.

First of all, it should be ensured that whatever sales quota is being assigned outside sales is directly related to the overall vision and mission of the startup. It should not only be about assigning a dollar amount or a number of installs. It should be set up in a way that it encompasses the storytelling about what it is, you’re trying to achieve – big picture style. That way a quota essentially becomes a recurring reminder of what you’re doing, who you’re doing it for, and how you’re progressing towards achieving your ambition.

Second, it should also be ensured that there are boundaries for how sales sell the product. Especially if it’s done through reps. No opportunity for promising customers anything other than what’s already in the product. No opportunity to put extra workload on the teams back at the office for coming up with new features or a new take on a feature just to satisfy an painful customer. Sales has to show some respect here for the team members who have agreed to take on some objectives which don’t come natural to them.

After all it is a team effort, where everybody help each other out, and where there is total transparency about how things are going, and how successful we all are. Wasn’t that what was agreed in the first place, when the startup was founded and the first team members started to join? That you’re in this together in other to succeed with a higher purpose?

Of course it was. Or should be, at least. And viewed from that lens it isn’t awkward to put sales quotas on people outside the sales team. Quite the contrary; it makes total sense in order to ensure the alignment against vision and mission of everybody on the team.

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Helping university research count

It is always a pleasure when you have the opportunity to go out and share some of the experiences and learnings, you have had, to an audience who need the insights in order to improve their odds of turning ideas into successful startups.

I had such an opportunity the other day, when I visited the Panum Institute at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at University of Copenhagen to talk about how to de-risk your business idea to a group of 60 Nordic researchers and ph.d.-students.

I thoroughly enjoy hanging out with researchers. One of the reasons is that I am deeply fascinated by what they do, how they work and how brilliant they are at coming up with novel discoveries. Part of my fascination is probably also that I know that I will never be in their league, and what is beyond reach somehow fascinates me.

But then there are – luckily – other things I think I am quite knowledgable about. One of those crucial areas is how to bridge the gap from the lab to the market, i.e. how to bring great research to life in the form of products and services that meet a real demand and can thus form the basis for a great business.

Getting in front of researchers to share that knowledge is key, I believe, because there is so much potential in ensuring that top class research gets a real life after the lab.

Today a lot of great research ends up in big corporations, and as such that is fine, because it ensures that the technology gets out there and gets used. But you have to ask yourself, what could happen if more of that research became spinouts in their own right creating new opportunities, new jobs and contributing to economic growth in society? That, to me, is the really exciting part.

For this to happen researchers need help. And a lot of it. When I meet young spinouts as part of the Danish Open Entrepreneurship programme, the spinouts fall into a couple of different buckets.

There are those that are really specialized, deeply techie and so niche, you just know it’s never going to be a company in itself but will most likely be acquired by some bigger corporate as a tech/IP acquisition.

And then there are those, where you immediately get a sense of how it could become a company in its own right with a product speaking clearly to a significant future customer base and with that the opportunity to actually create an impact and solving a problem.

Those are the interesting ones to me. And thus this is where I start to look deeper into the team. And what I see here is most often:

Deeply brilliant and experienced researchers with a big wish to see their research reach the market but with very little realistic idea about how to actually make that happen. Simply because they have never done it before, it’s not what they feel, they should be spending their time on, and – basically – it’s not what they should spend their time on.

This actually produces an interesting paradox. Because I would argue that when we talk about de-risking an idea for a startup, the process and structure you apply to that is actually very akin to the process you use, when you do research: You define a hypothesis, you test it using experiments, and you capture your learnings. And then you repeat, repeat and repeat until you have – hopefully – reached the intended outcome.

So you would argue that of all people, researchers are actually very well equipped to do de-risking for their own startups. Yet, a lot of the researchers struggle with this process. The reasons may wary, but I believe it has a lot to do with the fear of getting a ‘No’; the fear that what you have worked so hard on and been so committed to, will not get the anticipated reaction when you go outside the lab.

For the very same reason this is exactly where its great to get help from someone, who is not only more experienced about doing market research and de-risking but who is also not so personally attached to the research and technology in question. By admitting your own limitations and partnering up with someone to drive the external facing side of the emerging spinout, you may actually get very far with very little.

Why is that? Because the researcher already understands the mechanisms in de-risking, and you thus don’t have to spend time talking through the process and explain the mechanics. You can focus on getting the most critical hypothesis defined, design the experiments and capture the learnings. It can actually become quite an efficient process, and you could argue that only a little more than sheer mentoring for the researcher(s) could get you a long way.

However, mentoring is not enough. An equal commercial partner is needed for the researcher to increase the chances of ultimate startup success. And while getting help on the market de-risking in itself is a huge plus, the right people also bring a few other benefits that are equally important to the chances of success:

First of all, researchers need someone outside their research circle to help determine, when research and technology is ‘good enough’ to start testing. I seldom meet researchers who have a pragmatic view on this – the tendency is always to stay a bit longer in the lab, run yet another experiment, optimize the technology even further etc. In a worst case scenario what that essentially means is you can stay in the lab forever and never get the technology out to use.

Second – and a bit connected to the point above – researchers need someone to help them establish and secure a sense of urgency. While this is not the same thing as wanting to rush things through, it is about helping researchers figuring out how to get to market as quick as possible in order to both gather feedback and learnings from the market but also show investors that the case is on track to be viable.

Of course there are limitations as to what you can launch early, if you fx operate within a regulated industry, but the point is that there are always things you can do to start putting the spinout on the map, and researchers generally need help doing that.

Finally, a partner can help researchers deal with the very real issue that the envisioned outcome is by no means the same as the journey to get there. Too many researchers have the notion that the complex part of turning their research into a product that can be marketed is the actual research.

In fact, it often turns out that getting the product to market and commercializing it is every bit as complex, rocky and bumpy a journey as the research. Partners with experience in taking things to market know this because they have the battle scars themselves to prove it. Researchers don’t – by and large – have this and would thus be well advised to add this experience and expertise to their team early on. If for nothing else then at least for sparring them the pain of experiencing these hardships themselves. And potentially see their startup become an unnecessary casualty in the process.

So in summary, there is a lot of things, ‘business people’ can do to help researchers realize the full potential of their research. The right commercial people are just as important and valuable as materials needed in the lab to perform the actual research. They are each others yin and yang, and together they can achieve the outcome great researchers with a passion for affecting change have:

Making the research count where it’s needed.

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Affecting change hurts

Working at startup takes it toll. Ambitions are running high, ressources are always stretched, a lot of processes are not in place, and getting the right talent to join the mission is super hard. There is absolutely every reason for why days and weeks can feel like an almost eternal struggle. But that’s just the nature of how it is to be building something from nothing.

When you feel the struggle, it’s super important to remember that there is the good kind of struggle and the not so good kind of struggle.

The latter is the internal one, where you struggle because you don’t have 100 % alignment in the team about where you are going with the business, or you have some friction between various functions in the team, because your processes for how to do things are not completely done yet. Yes, it can be super painful, but it is something you work your way through, as you gain experience, figure out what works and what doesn’t and get into a modus operandi of only doing the things you have found out works best and provides the most progress for you.

The former – the external struggle – is the really interesting one. Because while you would think that struggling is inherently a bad thing, you could also argue that in some cases it might actually be an indication that you’re starting to make a dent.

The reason I make this counterintuitive claim is that struggle is an indicator of friction. And friction is an indicator of change taking place. Thus the more you feel the pain, the more you get feedback from the market about your product or service being a different take on the status quo and upsetting people a bit, the more you’re scratching where you need to scratch in order to have an opportunity to affect change and create impact.

Just for clarity, I am not talking about struggling making the product work or getting to product-market fit in the first place as a good thing. Those are still the kinds of struggle, you want to get away from by fixing the underlying causes as soon as possible. But struggle in terms of people noticing what you’re doing, asking critical questions and maybe even giving pushback and fighting you a bit? Absolutely.

Understanding this dynamic is super importent. Because when you do you also understand that there is some friction and pain you need to deal with in a positive way, since it’s something you want in your life as an indicator that you’re moving the needle and creating an impact where it matters.

So with that comes the obvious question: How to you deal with this pain of the struggle in a way that doesn’t end up killing you?

People have been in this position before, and there are plenty of things to learn from them. Some of them have even been in the position, where the pain and risk was much more lethal and where it was truly a matter of life or death in the most concrete terms. Learning from them and how they coped might give some insights into how you can think about this.

One of the most prominent thinkers and examples of how to deal with pain and struggle and not succumb to it comes from the Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher and Jew Viktor Frankl. Frankl spent 3 years in Nazi concentration camps, and while there he had an epiphany that afterwards formed the basis for his groundbreaking work:

People may do whatever they want to you. But even in the most gloomy of times, when all seems lost, you still at your core fundamentally control how you let circumstances impact you. You always have the freedom to decide for yourself that you won’t let even the biggest struggles break you.

That’s a super powerful realization coming from someone who would have had all possible reasons for giving up. And it’s a great opportunity to get inspired on how to be resilient and never give up. Stay strong, stay in the fight and prevail in the end.

So, in dealing with pain for the achievement of a later greater good, there is a lot of things you can do yourself by working with how you think, act and react to externalities. But you’re not alone, and you need that kind of enduring mentality to be present in the wider team as well.

This is where the role of the right recruitment comes in. The advice is pretty basic: Focus on recruiting people who share the vision, you have for your startup. People who have the same visualization of what it’s like when you’re there, and you have reached your ambitious goal. People who can feel how that would be like, and desperately want to get to that place. People who are willing and able to fight and see through the struggle(s) to get there, and understand there will be many roadblocks, challenges and issues before achieving success.

Of course it is also crucial that the people you recruit for the team have the right skillsets, but given a choice I would argue that sharing the same set of beliefs and ambition is the most crucial. Because if you get on the track, you’re hoping to get on, you will be challenged again and again by circumstances, and you need team members around you who will stand, fight and win the fight with you. Period.

You can help them along the way by ensuring that you carve up your success metrics into smaller bites, you can achieve within a limited time frame and celebrate, when its time to do so. Those little starts and stops in terms of putting in the hard work, celebrate success and start over again will do you a world of good in ensuring that you keep energy and stamina high, even as the challenges come at you left, right and center.

Just make it a habit to do the work that’s needed to affect meaningful change. Because the results are worth fighting for. Even when the process hurts, and you just want to quit. No success comes without making a real hard effort.

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Manage your effort

OKRs are a super efficient way of setting short term objectives and define key initiatives to reach them. It is perhaps the most simple way of ensuring that your startup is at all times outcome-driven that you can get.

But there is one key element to setting your OKRs that you should keep in mind when setting them: The amount of effort that goes into the Key Results necessary to reach the objectives.

When you define your key results right, you instantly have a feel that they are ambitious yet achievable within the short term.

But sometimes you look at your key objectives and get the feeling that even if they are measurable they are still kind of fuzzy and essentially the tip of the iceberg with a lot of dependencies down under.

That’s where you should sound the alarm and ask whether it’s really a short term OKR goal or rather a more significant ongoing project that should be handled in a different way.

If you fail to do that, the risk is that you end up chasing a bunch of OKRs that are draining ressources from you above and beyond what’s reasonable in order to be efficient across the board. People will start feeling fatigued, get frustrated and basically abandon the OKRs – and perhaps even the method, if you’re really unlucky.

There is no reason to get to that point, so make sure that your OKRs are not only structured right but also takes an amount of effort that is ambitious but manageable in order to move your startup fast forward.

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Recruit by objective

Too many startups are still looking towards other startups and their org charts, when they recruit to expand their teams.

While there is of course something to be said about having someone on point to fill the various operational roles in the startup and ensure smooth operations, navigating by org chart is typically a pretty poor way of ensuring that you reach your overall objectives.

What you should be looking to do instead is to staff by objective;

Figure out what the key objectives for your startup is and ensure that you have the right people with the right skills and experience in place to make a success out of them. If that entails restructuring your team and who’s in it, maybe that’s a thought worth having.

When you try to recruit, figure out who you need to have in the team, and who would be nice to have. Recruit the must haves to form the core, and supplement these with contractors or freelancers, who can make an important contribution for a while until they are on to other projects.

That way you can get the best from both worlds, and you won’t get stuck being dragged along by an irrelevant org chart.

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The power of disagreement

Being in disagreement sucks. Not only is it a sure way of ensuring you defocus from what you should ideally be working on. It also can be completely draining of energy. And depending on how the disagreement plays out, it can be downright nasty and make you want to head for the exit.

But there is actually real power in disagreement. If you are able to unleash it.

When we violently disagree on something, it is an opportunity to broaden our own horizons and get creative about new ways of looking at the world and new solutions to existing problems.

Looked at it that way being in disagreement can be the biggest catalyst of positive change in your team and your business. It can provide that ‘Heu-re-ka’ moment you all need to move on in a better direction.

But it requires something. It requires removing your ego from the equation and not be tempted to view disagreement as a personal matter that has more to do with you as a person and your relationship(s) with the one(s) critiquing you. If you fall in that trap, you’re immediately on the slide towards the dark side.

Instead you should be asking yourself: “What can I learn from this?” and “Where’s the bigger and important point in what the other one is arguing?” and then work onwards from that.

Now, in fairness, it’s super hard to do. Especially if you have great pride and integrity, and you’re passionate about what you work with. That sets you up pretty well for taking a slap to the face very personal.

But try to steer clear of it and focus on the opportunity. It will most likely be way better for your business, your team, your relationships with team members. And yourself, of course.

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3 tips for setting OKRs

Today marks the beginning of the last quarter of the calendar year 2021. For many that’s an opportunity to assess previous objectives and set up new ones for the new quarter using the OKR method made famous by Google.

That’s all great. But what many find is that OKRs can actually be quite tricky to set up in a truly meaningful way. So let me offer 3 tips for how you can get more our of OKRs.

First of all, think of OKRs as essentially a Christmas tree that cascades down through your organization. You start by identifying one big hairy goal (=objective) for the entire company and 3-4 key results that supports the goal in the sense that you will know that when you achieve these results, you will most likely have achieved or at the very least moved a lot closer to achieving your objective.

Second, take those key results and turn them into new objectives further down the organization. And let them create their own key results that supports reaching those objectives. And so on and so on until finally everybody through the org will have objectives and key results against them that cascades back to the very top. That will ensure that everybody is working towards the same hairy goal.

Finally, when defining your objectives start with a problem. No matter where you sit in the organization, you will have a clear idea about which problems you need to tackle in order to achieve your overall objective. Take those problems and turn them into objectives.

Doing that will simply help to ensure that you’re working on something that not only drives the company in the right direction but also works to overcome some of the problems you need to solve.

And remember: Objectives are qualitative and by definition not measurable. Key results are quantitative and ALWAYS measurable.

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It takes a full team

One of the great misconceptions in working to build a startup from scratch is that you need only be great at one thing – typically product development – and then you can wing and learn the rest.

Why do I think it’s a wrong approach?

First of all, you’re essentially working on a wrong assumption about what’s needed to become really successful. Because just as innovation, product development and delivery takes skill and experience, so do the ‘boring’ business parts.

In essence it may actually be more difficult to build a business than develop a product; when you’re developing a product you can get very far with your own skills (provided they’re good enough), but when you move out into the market, the whole world goes into flux, the interdependencies are huge and the risk as well. And it just takes a pretty steady set of hands to work that infinite space.

Second, you risk spending your time, energy and ressources on the wrong things. If you’re a stellar developer, you should be focusing on development. Full stop. You should now water down and defocus your unfair advantage by taking on tasks, you don’t feel confident in and – lets face it – basically care very little about.

You should leave all those things to people who have the same qualities as yourself – but within the business/market facing aspects of your startup.

In summary, the key message here is that it ALWAYS takes a full team to succeed. And since you cannot by everywhere and bring your A game to every aspect of getting a successful business up and running, make sure that you get A players in all positions and show them faith and trust that they’re capable people who knows what’s needed to be successful.

That’s the best way for you to maximize your chances of success.

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