Updated: Nov 28, 2018
“Who said life was supposed to be easy?” — Avy Loren-Cohen
“If being an entrepreneur was easy, everyone would become one.” — Avy Loren-Cohen
These are a couple of phrases I commonly communicate to my clients, be it a startup or public company with a seasoned CEO or a young new CEO. What I have learned from being an entrepreneur, part of many startups and as a business consult and coach, is that some of the most seasoned and young new CEO’s are very similar in how they are as entrepreneurs— regardless of age, education, religion, colour, geography etc. in many ways — both not every way of course.
So how does this relate to my subject of Entrepreneur’s Guide to Success? It relates as I will share with you some common issues entrepreneurs typically experience, and how to deal with them, learn from them and thrive from these experiences.
Please note that this may not be for everyone, and should you have your own suggestions or pointers — please feel free to add to this article and share it with everyone to help us all have a better entrepreneurial experience and overall life in general.
My list for overall entrepreneur, startup and co-founder success.
Key Character Traits
I have learned that common with most successful leaders, entrepreneurs, COO’s and CEO’s alike are five key personality traits as follows”
Belief in ones self. If you won’t, who will? Being an entrepreneur or the founder of a startup is analogies to a roller coaster ride as you will have your ups and downs. Its an exciting and scary ride, but that is the price you pay for being at the helm of your career or business. If you do not like this, work for someone and let them make the big bucks. So be prepared for the ride of your life where you will have to challenge yourself, take risks, face your fears and learn how to be very accountable to your words and actions.
Be passionate about what you are doing. Entrepreneurs and/or founders of a startup who are passionate tend to succeed more than those who lack passion. As a matter of fact, in my years of pitching to investors, coaching founders on how to pitch and work with Venture Capital Firms and as a member of a VC firm (Academic Technology Ventures), passionate and authentic founders can make all the difference in whether or not the startup receives an investment. If you are not passionate about your startup, why do it in the first place? Yes, the money… but come on, be excited, be passionate not about the money (that will come), but about what and why you are doing, how you are helping people, selling a great service or product — whatever… get excited and be passionate.
Absolute commitment. What I have seen is that founders and CEO’s are usually the individuals who will be doing things that most people will not and when all others will be resting, sleeping or what have you. My example here would be a founder of a startup who is also a coder/programmer. His team was working on a deliverable and it had to be presented by Monday of the next week — this being Friday afternoon. He received the news that the team had not completed the deliverables and there was no way “they” would. The founder spent night and day at the office doing all the work himself and then presented the work to the team early Monday morning — to their surprise it was completed and without error (as they had time to check it). What is important to note is that this is the type of “commitment” and dedication that every founder should have and every investor values.
Know how to prioritize. If one knows what their priorities are, one will be able to allocate the proper amount of resources to the areas that need it and also the proper focus and attention. In a startup, sales is the engine of the company and at the beginning, traction and sales are essential — this is post Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and Proof of Concept (POC) — especially as it would pertain to a tech company. So if one were to focus on generating sales as a priority, you can best allocate human, physical assets and monetary resources to this effort to generate sales results as fast as possible — without comprise to quality, values, integrity and performance.
Delegation & Organization. Two aspects that entrepreneurs and startup founders and executives alike need to master. Being organized is an offshoot from the process of focus and proper prioritization. So if you can organize your surroundings such as your office, your computer desktop and document filing system as well as your email inbox, your iPad, smartphone etc. this will help reduce wasted time. It is like a proper foundation to a structure to build upon. Using helpful apps or software to help organize your things to do list (like Things), your appointments and meeting arrangements (like Calendly), or better manage your social media activity (like AgoraPulse), or to help organize your thoughts (like Evernote) and then there is a Digital Virtual Personal Assistant (like Google Assistant) are some examples to help make one more organized and efficient. Delegation is another skill that many people are weak at as they tend to either not be aware that they are doing everything or, they have a mentality of “if you want it done right, do it yourself”. The fact of the matter is if you have capable human resources — use them, and if you can afford it — hire someone who can help you. Proper delegation can lead to an individual being less stressed, more efficient and more productive. Yes, there may be some bumps along the way, but in the long run it will be worth while. In the scenario where a person actually does not have a choice but to do everything for themselves as they do not have employees yet — I have a suggestion for this. These days there are many Personal Virtual Assistant (PVA) Freelancers available to tap into for a variety of tasks that you can outsource. and at an affordable rate. They can found on sites like Fiverr, Care.com, Frelancer.ca, UpWork and Guru are some examples, but there are plenty more sites.
Unwavering focus. Seems obvious, but many individuals can become distracted or go off track without realizing it. I recall a story (I forgot who the individual was), of a young CEO who informed his team that he would begin to solely “focus” on all matters concerning the growth of the company and just about everything else — he would defer to someone else or place it on the “to do list” for future consideration. This unwavering focus on growth caused this CEO to be able to rapidly scale his company like I have never seen or heard of before, or since for that matter. This does not mean that everyone should hyper focus on one thing, but it does illustrate my point about focus.
Have a person connection or experience with the project. This means that an entrepreneur in a startup went through the pain, came up with a solution in the form of a product and/or service to form his new startup. When the founder comes from this personal experience, they usually have a profound understanding of what the customer really and truly needs and wants. This gives the startup an additional edge (all things being equal) in becoming a success story, as their ability to connect with the target audience and understand from where the customer is coming from, enables the startup to deliver exception customer service, a great user experience and a better value proposition.
An entrepreneur must have determination — as described by an individual who has a firm or irreversible intention to achieve a desired end goal. In the case of an entrepreneur or co-founder of a startup — individuals who are determined to achieve their dream, vision and goals tend to be more successful than individuals who are not. As the expression goes, “by hook or by crook” — meaning; by any means necessary to achieve the goal. I would never suggest that “any means” should imply or be defined as any action or activity that is illegal or immoral — but “almost” everything may be more realistic.
Adaptability and flexibility. These traits are exceptionally important in the case of a startup where entrepreneurs must wear multiple hats and therefor perform various functions to build the company. When it comes to a tech startup, I have seen so many clients come to me with fantastic ideas often involving programming, coding and other technical skills. The problem with these business ideas were that none of the clients had any experience in any of the key skills required to build their idea — as a result, these entrepreneurs rightly decided to delay their startup until after gaining the knowledge necessary for them to properly build the company. I have advised many clients that if they wish to be in this space, they either have to have some level of knowledge or understanding of the required skills, and if possible, I suggest that they take one a more basic courses — usually I direct them to www.coursera.org or www.edx.org as they offer Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC) by top universities around the world and at an extremely affordable price. This knowledge enables entrepreneurs and founders alike from not being taken advantage of by employees, freelancers or suppliers of these services. If one or more of the core team is technically proficient with these skills it would be a much wiser move.
Strong financial abilities. This means that you need not be a CA or a financial planner, but you should be comfortable with creating spreadsheets, budgeting, forecasting and also understand the basics like a balance sheet, income statement, profit and loss statement etc. You need not be proficient with ratios, just the basics so you know where and how your business is doing without having to rely on someone else.
Be able to balance effective planning and strategic thinking with getting the job done.Too many times, regardless of education, school, geography, age etc.., many individuals have limited patients or skills to be a strategic thinker and planner. As a business consultant who specializes in business strategy, I believe that this is a skill that is a combination of one part life learned lessons and experiences, one part formal education and one part based on an individual intellectual design and capacity. There are so many different factors that a business strategist must take into account in every scenario be it innovation, operations, efficiencies, environment, pricing, sales, distribution, growth, customer loyalty, brand loyalty, digital strategy, marketing the list goes on… Most individuals have a limited (narrower) view of the future when planning a business strategy. This is why I strongly urge you to seriously consider working with a business strategist to help you develop a solid plan for your companies long term growth and future as they have the skills to see a much more complete understand of the business and the lifecycle — both in depth and breadth.
I am a firm believer that failure is a part of long term success in life and in business. As a matter of fact, in most cases people who have failed tend to use the experience as a teaching or life lesson that becomes etched into their brain — helping them prevent the same bad experience in the future by understanding what the early warning signs (EWS) were and how to prevent the situation in the first place. These people also tend to use their experiences to help teach others so they can benefit from this as well.
I believe that successful people accept failure as part of the process of entrepreneurship and embrace this in a way that does not mean that the person is a failure, but the action or attempt was less than perfect and that they could learn from this and then improve, modify or just kill the initiative entirely. It is interesting to note that many of the seasoned and wise entrepreneurs and CEO’s I have worked with have spoken about their failures and how they benefitted from those experiences as it made them better thinkers and better strategists.
This can be an offshoot of “failure”, but in this case I am referring to the instance when an individual goes through a pivotal and potentially destructive or detrimental experience in their career, where the individual is burned so badly in business, that the individual can actually be at risk of clinical depression, burn out, anxiety and other psychological issues. In business we use contracts and agreements to protect us, such as an NDA etc., but as the old expression goes — “so sue me”, meaning, a contract or agreement is only as good as the integrity of the person or company who is signing the document. And at the end of the day, if you are not prepared or incapable to bring forth legal action against to perpetrator, the paper is only worth its recycling value.
I had a client who got burned so badly by his so called “partner” and “close friend”, as he lied about a deceptive plan to restructure the company and screw existing investors. Long story short, my client ended up being terminated by the chairman of the board for advising the chairman and founder of the CEO’s actions, unknowing that the chairman was in on this ruse. The net result was that my client went into a deep depression for about two years. His confidence smashed, his motivation lost, his passion for business and entrepreneurship all but present, his reputation damaged due to the screwing his former partner did against its investors — many of which he either knew or brought to the company. His future looked bleak and all this person could do is think negatively and the only part of his life that was deemed good, was that his only luck was that he always found a parking space everywhere he went. As a matter of fact, his saying went “if I did not have luck with parking I would not have any good luck at all”.
This was extremely concerning and his wife asked me to work with him to build him up, build his confidence, find himself once again with fervour. So here is a portion of the formula that I used to help rebuild my client over a period of eight months.
a- Change his mindset, starting with telling him to not treat himself in a way that he would never let another person treat him. This meant that he can no longer down play himself, put himself down and this included to never tell himself “if I did not have luck with parking I would not have any good luck at all”. The reason for this was to retrain his brain from thinking negatively about his life and future as to change his mental outlook.
b- He could no longer say the words “I can’t”, reminding me of the 2008 movie “The Yes Man” with Jim Carrey where some motivation speaker told the audience to always say “yes” to every opportunity or situation for a more positive change in ones life…. this is not so much the case, but the idea is that instead not believing in himself he should initially believe that he can actually be able to do, to achieve, to succeed and to say “yes” as a first response, yes I can or at least I will figure out how I can and not how I can not.
b- He had to begin to take care of himself starting with his diet, getting a proper nights sleep and by including daily exercise into his routine. These three ingredients helped improve his sense of personal value, and as he “accomplished” some weight loss, he felt he was in better physical shape and as he was more rested, he found that his overall attitude became more positive, his attention was better (as per his children), his ability to focus and get tasks done improved (as per his wife) and so much more. These days, he is 4jean sizes smaller and in great physical and mental health — it was not a short term fix, but a change in overall longterm thinking.
d- Change what he listened to and what he viewed on any screen. No more TV (or Netflix) shows or movies that would cause him stress, that were negative, that were scary etc… no more news shows as this again caused much stress with often more than not — Constant Negative News, my version of CNN (kidding). Instead of the above, we substituted for entertainment that created laughter and happiness such as sitcoms like Big Bang Theory, Brooklyn Nine Nine, Modern Family, Two and a Half Men and others that did not include stressful intersections in the show or that included too serious content that could cause him additional stress. Keep in mind, this is not a solution long term, this is what would probably be called a healing period. Later on he was able to reintegrate regular TV into his repertoire as he was able to manage his stress and anxiety levels.
There are other strategies that were incorporated including mindfulness and peer and friend and family feedback to buildup self confidence and image. He eventually went back into the entrepreneurship world and slowly built his confidence back up by initially providing free consulting services to friends and acquaintances — leading to a career change where he moved into consulting and then back into a CEO role with a tech company in Silicone Valley, CA.
Be it a startup looking to find investors, making that first deal or sale or getting a loan from a friend, family member or bank…. you will certainly have to get used to the idea that there will be plenty of rejection — this I can guarantee you as I can death and taxes. But this is a very important part of being an entrepreneur, especially as part of a startup company where everything tends to be new, unproven and time and resources are at a premium. Let me say this, if you are not prepared to accept rejection, then you either learn how to or reconsider being in a role that will require you to have this experience. The interesting thing about rejection for many, is that it gets easier over time as you realize that most of the time it is not personal nor a reflection upon you. The other fact is that with practice and experience, you learn about people, the art of communication and you learn how to address negative feedback that would (in past) lead to rejection whereas in the future, you would be able to effectively turn the outcome into a positive and successful one.
Understate & Over Deliver
This is a topic that I am constantly preaching to all my clients. So many people at all levels of business and in daily life tend to overstate with or without realizing it, and as a result under deliver. Be it with projections, budgeting, working with a Venture Capital firm, Bank, investors, customers, distribution partners etc., It is generally better to modestly understate and over deliver. I am sure that many people have experienced what I wish to convey here, but I can not stress enough how important this is in business, especially as it pertains to a startup company and its founders. I have seen far too many founders paying the price for not following this advice. The fact of the matter is that people sometimes forget to factor the “Murphy's law adage, where anything that can go wrong will probably go wrong”. It does not matter how you slice it, founders claiming the amount of time required to reach their milestones, seeking (typically just enough) money/investment to cover their listed use of funds, programmers projecting how many days or hours to complete their task — they all tend to get egg on their faces. I see this happen mostly due to two major reasons, one being overly confident and the other usually because the person does not wish to ask for more or push the envelope so they go with the most optimistic or best case scenario. No matter what, always pad your projections or promises with a sufficient buffer that factors in the “unknowns” or “shit happens” in life. Keep in mind, very few people if any at all , will be upset if you over deliver.
As part of my practice includes executive business performance coaching, I work with many entrepreneurs who have Adult Attention Deficit Disorder/Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD, aka., ADHD). I have found that an overwhelming percentage (70% of my clients) are were/are ADD as they were/are attracted to entrepreneurship, startups, advertising, marketing and sales. From what I have observed and learned over the years, ADD in many ways actually is quite advantageous for entrepreneurs such as Sir Richard Branson of the Virgin empire, Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad, and JetBlue founder David Neeleman to name but a few. Things like Hyper Focus, risk taking, creativity, very social, (often endless) energy, highly inquisitive and excellent at brainstorming. The pitfalls to having ADD could include, but are not limited to Hyper Focus -why? You can get tunnel vision and forget all other things, people, commitments and time — time management and organization being two key weaknesses. Other weaknesses include impulsivity, a problem when mindful and strategic thinking and contemplation are required. Irritability and limited patience, is a problem when having meetings, trying to teach a newbie and such… often because the individuals brain is working so quickly that other people can not keep up and it frustrates the ADD individual (there is a lot more than it to this, but for the sake of brevity I will stop here. Please feel free to contact me to discuss this and any other subject matter in greater detail). For individuals with ADD/ADHD, one effective strategy to help you succeed in business would be to hire a business coach who specializes in ADD/ADHD.
Transition from a Startup CEO to a True CEO
How to be a CEO is not a role that you can easily just go to a university and take a course or group of courses to become a CEO. I have coached and mentored many new and young CEO’s and COO’s for that matter, helping them understand their role, their purpose and how they need to communicate and conduct themselves with varying audiences such as the press, investors, employees etc. The part that needs to be mentored is the personality of a CEO and how the CEO behaves. This often has a connection with self esteem, self image, imposter syndrome and/or The Dunning-Kruger effect. It takes time for an individual to own the role, to act the role and become a natural leader of the company and to inspire employees and investors to follow as not everyone can make the transition like Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook. Another thing to considerate is that perhaps you are not the best choice to be the CEO or your own company? This is a tough decision to make, but a good founder/owner will realize that the companies future growth and success will heavily weigh on a good leader and CEO, and as such, the painfully right decision is to hire a CEO and take a lover titles position in the company. Again, for best results find a mentor or hire one and if you can, find one who is a coach and mentor at the same time as they bring a much broader picture to your role and challenges.
Surround yourself with quality people
I have a saying, that owners, founders, CEO’s etc… should surround themselves (hire) people who compliment their skills, offer a different opinion and have a different background. I even suggest that they find people who are somewhat complete opposites as they can provide a very unbiased view and offer a very interesting perspective, lest alone a heated discussion. But at the end of the day, a smart entrepreneur (or leader, CEO’ etc.) will seek out other peoples opinions and knowledge without fear of, or concern that they may be more capable, knowledgeable or smarter. It is people who can make or break a company is what I strongly believe in, so choose wisely and do not fall into the pitfall of hiring people that are just like you or very similar as it feels so good… This does not necessarily apply when it comes to partners and cofounders as it is imperative that you share similar values and beliefs and that you can seamlessly slide in for each other when absent if and when need be. But even in this case, you can mix it up a little with age, geography or culture as their perspectives will naturally be different just from life experiences.
Focus on the Customer, the Higher Purpose — Less on the Dollar.
I always suggest to founders of a startup and entrepreneurs in general, to focus on the client and their satisfaction before anything because if the client is happy, the business is healthy and will have a greater probability to be a great success and endure over time — all things being equal. I have found that more often than not, companies who’s sole focus is the bottom line and short term profitability, often do not reach their financial (revenue and growth) potential. Why? Because it is all about the money! I get it though, I mean this is North America after all… but here is how I see it and how many of my clients attribute their success by focusing on the customer needs and experience. If you make that customer happy and satisfied you will have loyalty — you will also earn the desired phrase “brand love”, where there is an emotional and passionate relationship present between a satisfied consumer and a brand. Think about Apple and Starbucks as they consistently lead their categories with the highest NPS (net promoter scores) of all brands in class. It is a companies strong and deeply rooted values, distinct purpose and their way of behaving that amount to a clear personality that helps people truly feel they know you, and in turn trust your company, build bonds with you, and hopefully be fond of your company and be a loyal customer — even without a loyalty rewards program.
I could go on, but I believe that without repeating what many other authors may have written about before, I have covered points that are somewhat different than the norm. I wish you all great personal and professional success and welcome your feedback as usual.
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