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)

Let’s nail the Future of Work

Covid-19 fatigue is really settling in everywhere. Not least in the workplace where people are starting to really feel the effects of being remote working-from-home.

To many it is just not as fun and/or efficient as it was in the beginning, and the sense of belonging to a team or the employer as such is starting to erode.

It is a crucial point, I believe.

When we talk about the Future-of-Work and working from home, we almost always talk about the practical stuff; how do we facilitate virtual meetings, which platforms do we choose and how do we stay efficient, so we can tick off our to do-lists.

All very tangible stuff.

But we also need to address the intangible stuff. And treat it as a priority. Because not only are these ‘touchy feely’ elements critical to focus and performance, they are also super hard to manage through technology.

For that very reason I would like to see someone giving that part a go and come up with a new Employee Experience Platform.

But not like the new Microsoft Viva (which actually does look rather cool, if your company is big enough for it), which is focused a lot around classic productivity.

No, it should be more nímble. More soft. And address all the little intangibles that makes a team a team, a culture a culture. And most importantly; ensure that people feel a sense of belonging and stay engaged to do their best work.

It is a huge opportunity for those who can pull it off, and I honestly don’t think there are any really great offerings out there. So I would be super excited to see someone picking up the mantle and perhaps even help them along doing it.

So, hit me!

(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)

Good enough?

One of the greatest personal strengths and weaknesses is the ability to doubt yourself.

It is a strength when you use it to be ambitious about your work and not just release anything for the world or just the people around you to see, just because you can but show – also in delivery – that you truly care.

And it is a strength when you don’t ever consider yourself the smartest person in the room but actively seeks the input and opinions of great minds around you and make it a true team effort.

But it is a weakness when you’re afraid that what you put out there will, despite your best efforts and intentions, not be considered ‘good enough’ by those who see it.

And it is a weakness when you’re hesitant of making a decision for the fear of making the wrong one and look totally stupid.

In both the latter cases chances are that you will not get the reaction that you fear. That you are your own worst enemy. Which probably is the biggest weakness about the ability to doubt yourself;

Your own ability.

So try and talk yourself out of doing that. Remind yourself over and over again that the feeling is normal – ie you’re not an idiot – and it’s part of the game.

And then get on with exploring the positive aspects of doubting yourself.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

6 principles for a great team

The other day I was discussing philosophies for building and maintaining a great team with a good friend of mine.

I thought I wanted to share my philosophy here because great people and developing great people are essential to any hope of success whether it being in a startup or anywhere else. So here goes:

First of all, always look to hire someone better or smarter at what they do than yourself. We should not even discuss this point, but still I see too many “I want to be the brightest one in the room”-people recruiting essentially minions, and I think it is just detrimental to their future success.

Second, sell the vision or “the why” of what you’re doing. If people don’t get turned on by that or at the very least seem above and beyond interested in it, they will most likely be the first ones at the door if something more exciting comes along. This is not to say that people should never leave – they should (see later) – but they shouldn’t because they’re disengaged from day one.

Third, give people mandate. If you have great people around you, they will be looking to have the maximum influence on their own jobs and prospects for future success. Let them run with it.

Fourth, don’t be shy to set expectations and be transparent about hardships. If the great people want the mandate, you also have an obligation to include them on the tougher decisions and get their input. And those who really aspire to great things need to show they can step up and also take on the tougher challenges. In the end it adds to their personal development.

Fifth, always focus on developing people and help them go ‘from good to great’. Recognize their contributions and how much you appreciate them but also keep a tight focus on their development points. Not because they’re lacking, but because they have the potential to be even better and be more successful.

And finally, and sixth, always let them know that you appreciate what they’re doing, the contributions they make and how much they mean to you on a personal level. First of all, you should genuinely feel that way, so it will just be an exercise in transparency. And second of all, it is perhaps the strongest glue that will keep you together as a team and set you off towards accomplishing great things together.

That’s pretty much it, as I see it. Agree? Disagree? Why? I would love to hear your thoughts on this essential topic.

(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)

That’s so junior…

Back in the day I had a very experienced direct report who I used as a sounding board for thoughts and ideas to bring forward to executive management.

We would meet in my office (even though technically I didn’t have one), and we would go through the arguments, I had thought of making.

If I was off track, he would say in a very calm voice, while quietly shaking his head:

“Mads, that is junior behavior”.

And then he would follow it up with his interpretation of what senior behavior, aka the right sort of behavior, mingling, getting my point across needed to be successful with that particular project in that particular organization would be instead.

I listened. I better; he was usually right.

Since then I have always treasured having a sounding board and someone to lean on when things become a big hectic.

It is a nice contrast to my normal passionate, energetic ‘give-it-my-all-(alone)’-approach I often find myself (inadvertently) taking.

What I probably should become better at is making sure that I use the sounding board, when I need to and don’t leave it too long. But that too is a journey and learning experience waiting to be converted.

Into senior behavior.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Always be pitching

When you’re trying to get a startup off the ground, one of the things you spend most time on is…

Pitching.

Of course you pitch for investment or just any sort of backing really, because you need the support and all the ressources, you can muster, for the journey ahead.

But the pitching doesn’t stop there;

You pitch to future team members trying to get them onboard with the mission, generate excitement and – hopefully – install the love of the problem, you yourself feel, and which you just know is the secret sauce that will be key to (a) getting them onboard and (b) getting them to give it their all.

You pitch to existing team members and collaborators all across the pitch as you try to keep hold of and build the coalition, you have worked so hard to create, out (because no, any chance of success is not just about you – it is always about the team), so that in turn can crank out some impressive results.

You pitch to your backers to keep them engaged, excited and confident that they made the right decision when they decided to support whatever it is that you’re trying to do.

You pitch when you sit in meetings with your team discussing what the next experiment should look like, how it should look, feel and perform, because you’re most often the direct link back to your customers and their needs, pains and gains.

And of course – and perhaps most importantly – you pitch to existing and future customers; you go about trying to understand how you can help them become better off, and you pitch different proposals for solutions to them until you find the one that resonates the most. And then build from there. And pitch again. That job NEVER ends. And shouldn’t.

But pitching is hard work, no matter the context. So not being afraid to pitch helps. And being a good communicator does, too.

So if you think you lack something in the communication department, maybe that’s where you should be looking to invest some time and perhaps a little money in your own personal and professional development.

My best bet is that it will be worth it.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)