Don’t Let Your Startup Happen To You

March 29, 2010

One of the things I most love about startup companies is the ability for talent to really move the dial.  At large companies, with established products and process, great talent is more likely to incrementally make an impact than dramatically make an impact.  At a small startup great talent is often the difference between success and failure.  Obviously, entrepreneurs cannot control every variable that affects their companies, but they can control an order of magnitude more than managers running large established businesses.

During my first year running Brontes, I wasn’t in control; the business was happening to me.  We were very late on engineering deadlines and not converging on a critical technical proof point.  If you asked me in December 2004, how things were going, after a few drinks, I would likely have told you that we were struggling due to the engineering program and there was little that I could do about it.  I truly felt it was out of my hands.  It took the urging of my Board of Directors to take some type of action.

It is for this reason that I strongly counsel entrepreneurs not to let their startup happen to them.  Startups move really fast and inertia will pull a startup in a particular path of momentum.  Successful founders typically talk about how the decisions the company made resulted in a great outcome and struggling founders typically speak about the factors that were out of their control that resulted in a challenging business.  Obviously, some of this is attributed to the classic adage that “success has many fathers and failure has none.”  People love to take credit when things go well and fail to take responsibility when they don’t.  Certainly, the truth is somewhere in between.

However, I would suggest that there is another factor here.  I believe that successful founders drive their businesses and for many struggling founders the startup’s inertia moves forward too fast, and they don’t take action soon enough; the startup happens to them.

In early 2005, I finally took action at Brontes by getting a third party assessment of our progress, changing our approach and adding critical resources.  From this experience I realized that I could never again let the business happen to me.  I had to drive the business to success.  I became very aggressive about anticipating areas of weakness and pushing to improve those areas early.  I looked for likely failure modes in my business and fought hard to remove them. It was in my control to make the business a success and, if we failed, I wanted it to be as a result of making the wrong decisions, rather than not aggressively managing to success.

If you’re a startup CEO and you’re struggling right now, don’t forget that you’re in control of your own destiny.  Promise yourself that if you struggle, it will be a result of your actions and not your inactions.  Don’t let your startup happen to you.

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