Get rich quick. Swing for the fences. Change the universe. Do it now.
These are the hopes that fuel many an entrepreneurial dream. But turning even the greatest idea into a viable, sustainable, and healthy business usually takes time. Lots of it.
That’s why the most effective founders figure out how to lengthen their startup runway. They give their idea time to develop. They create space for experimentation and discovery. They know that the vast majority of home runs are the result of many swings at the plate.
In a prior post, I outlined a few venture-level strategies for increasing the likelihood that your startup will have enough time to make it off the ground.
But venture-level strategies don’t mean much if the founding team is depleted, distracted or overwhelmed. During any startup’s inevitable periods of strife and challenge, the founder’s level of resilience and commitment will be the most critical thread holding the venture together and driving it forward. In these times, the most important questions have less to do with your business model and everything to do with you:
How much gas is left in your tank? How do you refuel and recover? Are you waking up with enthusiasm and a sense of purpose or with growing weight on your shoulders? How can you bring your absolute best self — your “A Game” — to your venture?
Here are four principles from the final chapter of my recent book to help you bring your personal best to your venture over long periods of time, to sustain the climb up your startup learning curve. (These are excerpts from more full descriptions in the book):
- FEED YOUR FIRE. As a kid, I loved waking up to the sound of distant lawn mowers drifting through my window, a signal that the weekend had arrived … Forty years later, I still seek and enjoy that Saturday morning feeling, the fire in the belly that pulls me out of bed as I look forward to the activities of the day ahead . . . This is the essence of entrepreneurial passion, a self-evident compulsion driven by instinct, needing no explanation . . . Most of us, too, can identify with another feeling, more like a weight on the shoulders, a feeling of resignation and compliance, of doing a job because we seem to have no choice. It’s the hit-the-snooze-button syndrome, where we most look forward to the end of the day. When it comes to personal energy and stamina, the difference be- tween these two states is like the difference between the Saturdays and Mondays of my youth . . . A key strategy for building your own perseverance and performance as an entrepreneur is to know what activates the fire in your belly. As your startup road becomes more challenging: Why do you continue to care? What are your compelling reasons for persevering? What is it about your business that most energizes you? In what ways are your expertise and passion best utilized? On the other side of the coin: What issues and activities provoke frustration or fear? Where are your feet stuck in mud because of a lack of desire, skill, or confidence? How can you better align the goals of your venture, and your role in leading it, with your natural motivation and capabilities?
- FOCUS ON ACHIEVABLE GOALS. One of the challenges for passionate founders with ambitious ideas is to not be overwhelmed and stymied by the size and complexity of the venture opportunity. The old axiom about how to eat an elephant—one bite at a time—will serve you well as you seek to accelerate down your startup runway. Break your grand vision into shorter-term, readily achievable goals to encourage clear progress and rapid iteration. From a motivational perspective, the achievement of each step brings its own psychological reward, a dose of satisfaction, and a sense that your venture is gaining ground . . . In an article summarizing a longitudinal study of nascent entrepreneurs, Sibin Wu, Linda Matthews, and Grace Dagher of the University of Texas (Pan American) observe that achievement-oriented entrepreneurs tend to do best with a measured approach to goal setting. “For highly complex tasks, such as the entrepreneurial process, difficult goals are not as effective as simple goals,” they write. “Entrepreneurs tend to be overconfident and overestimate their abilities and their business goals. They may overconfidently set their goals too high . . . and hence experience dissatisfaction instead of satisfaction.” It’s important to emphasize here that setting achievable goals does not equate to shrinking from adversity or ignoring challenging tasks. The lesson is not to abandon your ultimate vision but to keep your eyes focused on the difficult but achievable steps that will get you there . . . To boost the positive effect of your short-term goal setting, create regular points of accountability at which you can celebrate and share results with others.
- BALANCE PERFORMANCE WITH RECOVERY. Sustained, world-class performance in any field requires what Jim Loehr, renowned performance psychologist and co-founder of the Human Performance Institute, calls oscillation, the balancing of intense periods of focus and effort with intermittent periods of recovery and development. Over several decades, Dr. Loehr and his partners have closely examined the behavior of peak performers across sports, business, medicine, law enforcement, and other fields. Virtuoso musicians, champion tennis players, and high-performing engineerss all display a similar back-and-forth pattern of intense effort and recovery. The same is true of the best entrepreneurs. Any talented founder can run hard and bring his or her “A” game for a few weeks or a few months, but leaders who display strong venture leadership over the longer term find ways to care for themselves and their loved ones, recharge their batteries, and sharpen their skills and knowledge… Sustaining your effectiveness as a founder will require punctuating your work with adequate time for recovery, practice, and play. A simple (but often ignored) example is in the area of self-care. Many frazzled entrepreneurs don’t allow themselves enough sleep, exercise, or nutrition. They envision themselves as tough, stoic warriors, when in fact their health and intellect are fading fast. Personally, I have yet to find a more reliable way to replenish my strength, mind, and mood than to engage in regular exercise, but each founder will need to find his or her own rhythm and approach for staying sharp and increasing capacity . . . If you don’t take time for recovery, chances are good that your mind and body will do it for you . . . In early 2010, Mark Williams noticed that Modality’s top software developer, a brilliant technologist and the indispensable backbone of the firm’s innovation and development ef- forts, was not performing up to his own historical standards . . .
- PERSEVERE WITHOUT ATTACHING. The deepest form of entrepreneurial commitment acknowledges and accepts that there are forces in the marketplace that are beyond the founder’s control, forces that will impact the venture’s destiny for better or worse. Rather than causing a resilient founder to give up, this realization highlights for them the fact that every route to venture success will deviate in some way from early expectations. Most thriving businesses end up looking very different than their founders’ original visions. Persevering over time means committing to the path forward without knowing exactly where it will lead. This involves both whole-hearted intention as well as flexibility. Think of the competitive athlete who enters the arena with a well-practiced plan, but improvises on the fly once play begins. So, go boldly down the path, while keeping your eyes wide open.