Ask strategic questions

Not everybody is a brilliant strategist. And that’s ok. Yet every founder team need a strategy for how to develop and grow their startup, and what do you do, if the very thought of developing a strategy just gives you an uneasy feeling?

The simple answer is that you make it as easy as you can for yourself by ensuring that you have a simple platform from which you can get to work on your strategy.

There are many different platforms, you can use. With platforms, I essentially mean approaches. And there is one approach that is more powerful than most and which will easily help guide you through the process without too much pain:

Start by asking strategic questions.

What is a strategic question?

A strategic question is one that borrows from the “How Might We…”-methodology of the Google Design Sprint process (or maybe it was the other way around, doesn’t really matter) and allows you to frame your goal and aspirations for outcomes as a question.

A couple of examples:

How might we utilize our strength towards Segment A of customers to launch successfully with Segment B?

How might we grow retention in our customer base over 97% month over month?

Get it?

When you asks questions like that, you can start plotting suggested answers to them. You can word these like outcomes, i.e. “Launch 1:1 Customer Success offering for Premium Customers” and then look at which actions you will need to take in order to deliver on that.

When you have that sort of Christmas tree of objectives and actions – essentially an OKR structure – you’re well on your way to formulating a strategy: You will be crystal clear about what you will be doing, what the result is going to be and why you will be doing it.

The rest is – more or less – just a matter of getting it written up in a format that can be shared and discussed with your team and various stakeholders, before it becomes the new strategy to guide your venture towards even more more success.

But remember: It ALWAYS starts with being able to ask the right open-ended questions.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The real drivers for success

One of the general misconceptions about startups is that too much value is being placed on the idea itself or the work you have already done, and not enough value is placed on what’s needed in order to get to where you want to be with your company in the future.

It is so easy to scoff at a product vision, but the reality of the matter is that when you define a bold and daring vision for your new venture, it becomes more apparent all the things you need to get in place in order to have any chance of getting there.

Let me mention a couple;

In-depth knowledge about the market, market dynamics and the customers, you’re addressing so you know what’s needed from the product(s) in order to get in front of the right future customers and actually convert into sales.

The talent needed to make things happen, so you make sure you have all the right competencies in place, which – if they are just remotely good at what they do – will have plenty of other options on the table than to join your merry crew.

The money needed to make the vision come through and fuel both the roadmap and the growth you have envisaged in order to get to the position, you want to get in.

And these are just to name a few.

The easy thing to do here is to just not care about these things, save them for later – and run into big, big trouble later on.

That happens;

When you build something nobody wants or there is just not a big enough market for. It remains the primary reason startups fail.

You cannot attract the talent you need because they have all chosen to join the other companies where they have a better feeling of what they are aspiring to do and they’re moving more diligently in the right direction.

Investors will turn their backs on you because your basically not fundable for above reasons or for something else.

See the connection here?

The best decision, you can make, is to focus less on past achievements and more on what is needed – not from you yourself necessarily but from everybody else – in order to get to where you want to be in a few years time. And then work towards ensuring that can actually happen.

That is going to make all the difference to your success.

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The ‘why’ on paper

One of the really interesting things you come across when you’re trying to build what hopefully becomes a great and enduring company from scratch is how much of your initial belief system, values and ambition actually makes it through the immense exercise of making it all happen?

While it should be pretty straight forward to agree on that a shared vision, ‘why’ and core values, I think you also need to realize that getting from talking about it to actually living it and agreeing on it in your founding documents can be a significant exercise in itself.

This may especially be true when you’re trying to build something with great and experienced people centered around a shared vision and sense of ‘why’. You may not have known each other for years in advance before you take the plunge, and your co-founders may not be lifelong best friends of yours.

What you essentially end up betting on is ability to take something thats easy for you all to agree about when talking about it in meetings into something that you can all actually commit to on paper.

Don’t mistake what could be a huge thing and a big task to secure alignment for a minor detail. Because it’s not.

There is a – and will likely always remain – a big difference between talking about doing something and the need to get it done and then the real commitment towards making it happen. And the sooner you start and have that conversation during your process, the better I think you will be off.

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Get the mandate

Whenever you take on an opportunity, make sure you have understood the mandate and you have it in a way that you can follow through on the ambition, you are trying to bring to life.

Why? Because it is dead easy to be flattered, take in all the kind words and accept a role, where everybody but yourself is in control. And when that happens, you will not be leading anything. You will be a spectator. A spectator running the risk of getting blamed, when the decisions of others come back to bite the project.

Be especially aware of this is you are considering an opportunity in a corporate environment. Corporate cultures are – for better and for worse – most often well established, and the chances of it changing for the sake of your opportunity is zero. Non-existing. Unless, that is, you make sure to get a very strong and powerful mandate from the ‘go’.

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Remember the vision

Eventhough I am a big proponent of starting small and experimenting your way forward when building a startup or a new product or service for that matter, there is one thing that always needs to be in place: A vision.

It is so easy to get an idea and just start executing small scale. It is harder to succeed in closing the first sale, but it becomes super tricky if that first sale is not supported by a vision of where it is you want to take your new company long term.

With a vision in place, you will know whether your first sale sets you off in the right direction and gives you something to build on. With a vision in place, your chances of making that first sale happen based on criteria and terms that supports your overall goal increases. Without a vision you risk tumbling in the dark. And – more importantly – without a vision you risk building a business that will never really be able to take off but will just (best case) hum along.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)