Entrepreneurship is hard. It’s hard not only because there may be business model risk or technical risk or competitive risk, but also because there may be personal risk.
In other words, you may be the risk.
As I’ve tried over the past 2-3 years to build a business, I find that while I’m getting better at strategy, I still have a long way to go on building the right elements of character that I need in order to be able to build a successful business.
Building a business, I have found, requires some very specific traits that are not natural to me.
That said, it’s been fun to grow into them. Often painful. But, fun.
Here are some of the things I’ve learned I need to have or be (and which don’t come naturally to me):
1. Dogged Focus
Focus is perhaps the most important thing. And something I struggle with a lot. I love shiny objects 🙂
Still, I have learned that the ability to say no more often than yes is really important. I have to say no to the dozens of interesting ideas I have or invitations I receive if they aren’t related to the end goal of building a successful company.
And I have started to.
I do fewer lunches and coffees. I’m more diligent about planning my quarters, weeks, and days.
When I get an idea or interesting distraction, I log it in an idea journal, so it gets out of my head. Oftentimes, I forget about it within a day.
By saying “no” to these distractions, I free myself to focus on the important thing: building a business.
2. Directness & Assertiveness
I have a tendency to be a people pleaser. I have a hard time saying ‘no’ to people and I often find confrontation uncomfortable. Moreover, my theological convictions to ‘put others first’ often made me feel guilty when I asserted my needs and wants (that’s a whole other post).
To be successful, though, I have found that I have to grow in my ability to be direct and really (overly) assertive without being alienating.
Concretely, this means being clear about what I want and being willing to say “no” to others (part of “1” above), but unwilling to accept it as an answer when it relates to something I need or want.
3. Strong Bias Towards Execution
I have learned that people can get behind a vision, but only for so long. Eventually, they need to know what to do and care more about getting their work done than the thousand ideas I might have in my mind.
More importantly, customers don’t pay me for ideas. They pay me for services rendered. So, every hour I spend thinking or plotting has an opportunity cost.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t think or plan. It’s important. Some decisions take much, much longer to make. That’s appropriate.
But, once a strategy is defined or a decision made, the day to day needs to be focused on execution. If I’ve done my job well, I’ll have some metric or KPI I’m expecting to manipulate, which lets me know if the strategy is working, but changing strategies mid-course because I get a different idea is counterproductive.
The Bottom line: For an early stage company, execution is everything. It’s better to pick the wrong strategy and work hard to learn it’s the wrong strategy than it is to spend a lot of time thinking of different strategies and brainstorming ad nauseum about which one to select. There are “do-overs” in business if you manage things carefully.
My favorite period of American history is the late 19th, early 20th Century. The age of the Industrialists. I’ve always been fascinated how people such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, born dirt poor, built such massive empires.
I am really grateful to have been raised in a relatively affluent household. But, one of the things you can lose sight of when you have money, is that you can buy solutions to problems. The problem comes when you’re too quick to buy solutions to problems because there’s a temptation to be lazy about a) what the problem *really* is and b) whether the solution you’re purchasing is really the right one.
I think part of the reason the great industrialists were so great is precisely because they didn’t have the resources. They had to imagine ways around them and, in doing so, built amazing things. Constraints can be liberating if you’re committed enough to the outcome you want (e.g., “1” and “2” above).
Over time, as you build the habit of being scrappy and managing resources effectively, you earn the right to spend money to solve problems. This has been a hard lesson to learn.
5. Confront the Things that Make Me Uncomfortable
For me, it’s all the stuff I’ve written about so far. As I was thinking through these traits – and my weakness at many of them – it occurred to me that another virtue was necessary: a willingness to confront the uncomfortable.
I could avoid working on the things I mentioned above because they are hard. Because they make me uncomfortable. But my business would fail. In the short run, my business will struggle the longer I delay in implementing them.
As a business owner, I don’t get the privilege of avoiding the uncomfortable – in fact, it’s my job to confront reality and (to some extent) try to shield my team from the things that would distract them or cause them anxiety.
But what if that anxiety-inducing thing is me? What if I’m too weak to lead because I lack focus, assertiveness, bias towards execution, etc.?
Being willing to confront the uncomfortable is necessary to make sure that isn’t the case. Or, if it is, I’m doing what I can to remedy it quickly.
6. The Score Takes Care of Itself
Thinking about – and focusing on – outcomes is important. But, it can also be a distraction or cause you to cut corners in the short run that erode long term value.
Instead, I am trying to balance attention to outcomes with the appropriate principles, habits, and routines, necessary to perform. Because if you do the right things, the rest will start to fall into place.
This is harder than it sounds, especially when you’re working with a team. How do you communicate clearly enough to get the outcome you want and ensure you execute at a high enough level without standing over someone’s shoulder or doing the work for them? Ain’t nobody got time for that.
At some level, it starts with me – my own sense of discipline and follow through. But it’s also about caring how the work gets done, not just that it gets done.
This list is by no means all inclusive. There are many different entrepreneurs, each with their own stories, their own strengths, and their own weaknesses.
As I continue down this path, I know I’ll continue to encounter obstacles and opportunities that challenge me to grow in interesting and exciting ways. While it can be painful (and really stressful!) in the moment, it’s also a lot of fun. I look forward to the journey.
What have you learned about how you need to change as you try to grow your own business? Am I missing important character traits?