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What I’ve Learned from 10 Years as a Successful Founder (Part One)…
Below is part one of an ongoing series of raw and honest posts, designed to share stories directly from our own personal experiences of start-up success. They are a little rough around the edges but full of real world advice, starting with an answer to one of the most asked questions of all….just why were you successful?
It’s the question that every experienced entrepreneur is asked the most: If you could name one thing that made you successful what would it be?
The answer is one I’ve spent the last four months pondering deeply since leaving my last business, as I search for the answer to ‘what’s next’, and to ensure I add as much value as humanly possible to our portfolio companies here at Haatch.
The answer to it is incredibly complex, as it asks for the distillation of, what is often, years of toil, stress, hard work and problem solving into a handful of words or single phrase.
A lot has been written about this very subject too of course, often pointing the reader to believe that it’s all about working with an intensity that no one else can match; a superhuman effort that involves sacrifice and pain.
There can be elements of sacrifice absolutely, and in most cases those that have been there and bought the T shirt can attest to that. But that’s not really the answer.
My own personal experience involved plenty of sacrifice sure and saw me making ends meet by selling personal belongings and often doing side jobs to pay the mortgage. It also meant I drifted from friendship groups for many years and some of those relationships have never really recovered as a result. There is always a cost to any ‘success’.
But this selfish focus and intensity is not the sole ingredient to success, nor is it a necessity in all scenarios in my experience, particularly if you are looking to run a funded business as opposed to a bootstrapped one.
Instead, the true answer to the question lies in two key traits, or approaches that I call Unerring Consistency and the Velocity of Deployment.
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
By far the single most important trait of them all is that of consistency.
It’s a term that can mean many different things, but in this context it captures the single-minded-stop-at-nothing behaviours that you must exhibit from day one of your start up in order to have chance of success in the mid to longer term.
Starting a business is hard, stressful, lonely and fraught with difficulty and your job is to unpick that minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day and week by week, one step at a time and without missing a beat.
It is a skill that is perhaps the most difficult of all to master, especially given the amount of distraction available to us all now – but master it you must if you are to stand any chance of victory.
To do that, however, we must make the critical distinction between what I’m talking about here as consistency and what many may make you believe it means.
Intensity v Consistency
If you, like me, read a lot of posts, listen to podcasts and follow lots of advice on social then you’ll be very aware of the importance of delivery, but a lot of people misunderstand what this really means.
Instead, what they describe is really intensity. Their belief is that they should work like dogs, incessantly, 12 hours a day, seven days a week, when, in fact, this can actually be detrimental to your efforts.
You see, by definition, ‘intensity’ is unsustainable and, quite frankly, bad for your mental and physical health. There are periods where a little of this is necessary of course but an approach that involves any significant amount of this is set up for failure.
Winning in done in the trenches, grinding out improvement – whether that is applied across your product roadmap, service offering, brand development, audience growth or any other critical path – when those around you may have long given up or been distracted onto something else.
It’s the 201st blog post you write, the 20th conference you speak at, or the 7th version of your product that you roll out that may be the tipping point for your business.
And everything that comes before this is hard slog. It’s endless days and weeks of consistently delivering the same thing, often without the feedback loop of better sales, customer satisfaction or happiness, in the unflinching knowledge that it WILL work.
But you don’t get there immediately, or even quickly. It’s why many describe building a successful business as being a little like an iceberg; three quarters of it is under water. The bit that people see is really the result of the months, or years, of toil underwater.
As Amazon’s Jeff Bezos famously said:
“All overnight success takes about 10 years.’Jeff Bezos
And he’s not wrong as there are countless examples of business success stories, including my own, that play testament to this.
The 10-year timeline
Being able to deliver such consistency and repel negative thoughts of giving up takes a certain type of character and it is that very trait that ranks at number one on the Haatch tick list of investment criteria – it’s that important.
Ask a founder if they want to be a success and they will obviously say ‘yes’. But what is most important to understand is the determination and unerring will power behind the answer that allows that person to go to places few have the ability to go – and you should ask yourself this question before jumping in.
The problem is that you often meet entrepreneurs fed on a constant stream of overnight success stories. Such beliefs make people impatient, shortcut-minded and capricious, all of which have devastating effects on performance and judgement. It is my job, as I see it, to train that out of them, installing an understanding of the power of consistency.
In order to follow such a disciplined process, it is clearly imperative that you have a framework to work from as without it you have little chance of success.
And this is where habit forming daily and weekly routine comes in. To give you an example here’s how I planned my days for the first three years of Zazzle Media (the last business I founded).
- Reply to all communication within an hour – night and day.
- Plan out the day’s tasks at the beginning of the day and don’t close up’ until they are complete.
- Add at least one idea to a list of blog posts I’d write to power our audience growth agenda.
- Arrange at least one call or meet with someone to grow my network.
- Write one blog post per week.
- Create 1+ case studies and upload to the site.
- Improve at least one service page on the website
- Pitch for at least one conference speaking slot per month
This was done without fail, 365 days a year and all despite the fact that often there was no discernible increase in traffic to those posts or audience growth. All I had was an unshakeable belief in our core vision.
This structured approach is not new or unique of course, but it is critical, and I called it my Domino Strategy. Start with one thing and keep it simple. Become the best in the world at it and then just keep knocking those dominos over day by day, week by week until you have momentum. At this point you can then begin expanding laterally into adjacent markets, geographies or services/products.
But what about ‘Velocity of Deployment’?
So far then we have established that consistency is critical and incredibly difficult to deliver well. But, it is also nothing without the ability to lead others in a way that promotes Velocity of Deployment, especially as you begin to gain traction and start the scaling process.
At the start of your founder journey you must have consistency, often for years, but eventually there comes a point where you start to scale, and others pick up that batten alongside you.
This can be a powerful, pivotal moment in the history of the business and with a strong foundation and clear vision and mission statement behind you (I’ll be writing more on this in a future post) you can quickly scale up.
And when this begins to happen your role changes. Consistency is still key of course but you now play a dual role; one of leader as well as founder.
In this new world you are required to ensure that the framework you laid down so meticulously in those first few months and years is followed and scales as you add people.
And this is where Velocity of Deployment comes in.
The focus should now shift to making sure that your growing team ships improvements as consistently as you did those foundations all those months ago. You are the guiding energy that adds the extra 10% to productivity and output, customer happiness and everything in between. And you do that with velocity.
If your culture makes it OK to finish something late, or even attend a meeting late, it can quickly double down as part of your culture. Your role is therefore to ensure people understand WHY you fight so hard and WHY it’s imperative to keep shipping ‘better’ every. Single. Day.
Success is never achieved. It is never a finished picture so keep everyone focused on ‘next’.
Do that and you know that you’re on the path to scale up victory. But more of that another day…
To read part two click here