I’m about to make an outrageous claim. I’m pretty sure you’re not going to buy it at first. But if you read my entire argument, I guarantee it will leave you thinking. I’m going to make this claim because I would like to elevate the conversation about entrepreneurship and success. Rather than talking about who’s getting funded or debating which sector is the hottest, I’d like to talk about what entrepreneurs can do to become even better at their craft then they are today. Here’s how I think every founder of every company can become better at his or her job overnight:
Stop having opinions.
Now you may think “that’s crazy!” You’d be right. But as Richard Dreyfus so eloquently stated in that unforgettable Apple commercial, “Here’s to the crazy ones.” For a moment, let’s consider some of the primary responsibilities of a startup founder and how letting go of your opinions might not be so crazy after all.
Founder’s Responsibility #1: Communicating your organization’s vision
As a founder of a business, your primary responsibility is communicating your startup’s value and direction. Investors, supporters, co-founders, advisors, and employees all need to hear (and be continuously updated) on both. Communicating vision is how you inspire, hire, fire, sell, fund, and lead. It’s also the most dangerous time to have opinions. Take, for example, the startup founder who makes assumptions about what is right for the business. Maybe he or she hears some new information and believes deep down that it’s time to shift directions based on this information. Or worse, the founder experiences a momentary shift in direction themselves. For established businesses, this form of wavering volatility can damage a reputation. For businesses in their infancy, it can cripple the foundation.
I’m not saying that founders should never change course. In fact, “sticking to your guns” in the face of solid evidence for change is its own indication of hard-headed opining. What I am saying is that a startup’s vision must be clear, rational, and purposeful. Opinions can cloud the communication of vision with assumptions, “gut” feelings, and opportunities for debate.
Founder’s Responsibility #2: Listening to your market
If you’re not listening to your market – both your current and potential customers – then you’re not running a business. Many founders understand this. Unfortunately, it’s also very easy to subtly implant opinions when you’re listening to your market, distorting what you hear. For example, let’s say you’re conducting an A/B test. You’ve presented two different options to your customers, and they’ve chosen Option A twice as often as Option B. You may be inclined to formulate some guesses about the reasons why. You further substantiate these guesses by looking back at your customers’ previous behavior and attributing your new “understanding” about their thinking to these behaviors. But, you’ve made a critical error. You’ve looked for a pattern, rather than discovered one. Both feel very similar in your brain, but in actuality, instead of carefully charting your customer’s behavior, you’ve just found what you set out to find, regardless of evidence to the contrary. You’ve stopped listening to your market in favor of finding evidence to support your opinion.
As if that weren’t bad enough, imagine not even conducting market research because you’re positive that your solution will be the solution everyone will want. This may seem silly to seasoned entrepreneurs, but we’ve all done it. Some of us have done it more recently then we care to admit. Look at a problem we have, come up with a solution, and then implement the solution for others – what could go wrong? Well, we’ve forgotten to ask the five startup questions, and we’ve totally neglected our market because we rushed to act on our opinion.
Founder’s Responsibility #3: Listening to your team
With all the fame we dole out to “visionaries,” it would seem our culture values the maverick over the team player. But, make no mistake: all of the visionaries who get to the top of their industries do so by trusting and listening to their team. Unfortunately, in a startup, when the team is small and responsibilities have not yet been clearly delegated, many founders feel the need to tell everyone what they think. Telling your team what you think is not communicating your organization’s vision. Telling your team what you think silences their input before they can even formulate it. Why? Because you’re the founder; you’re the boss.
Have you ever been in a meeting where no one’s talking? Where awkward silences follow the boss’s questions? Where it feels like everyone’s just waiting for the chief to tell them what to do? These are the types of meetings that occur when a staff has been silenced. If you’re starting a business and you hear yourself talking more than your staff, something’s wrong. You may be the visionary, but once you’ve communicated your vision, sit down, shut up and listen to the wisdom and diversity of the people around you. You hired them for a reason – and hopefully, it wasn’t just to serve as your audience.
Founder’s Responsibility #4: Making the final decisions
A founder has to make decisions. And even the most capable teammates will look to you for leadership and guidance along the way. So when decision time comes, it’s finally a good time to have opinions, right? Actually, it’s the worst time. If your decisions are being guided by your opinions, then you’re not doing any of the above. You’re not listening to your staff enough to be influenced by them. You’re not listening to your market enough to let them be the primary informant of your decisions. You’re not communicating your organization’s vision clearly enough that your stakeholders know the correct course of action regardless of your thoughts and feelings.
There will always be decisions that must be made without enough information. When these moments occur, your staff and your supporters will look to you to make them. The fewer opinions you have in these moments, the more open to all the information you become, the more informed and stronger your decision will be, and the more trust you will earn in making it. Rather than asking people to trust in what you believe, ask them to trust in your team’s shared vision and its ability to let listening drive its success.
Here’s to the crazy ones. Here’s to the founders crazy enough to drive their startups without the yoke of their own opinions. Now that’s truly visionary.
Photography: John Snape