Thoughts on startups by investors that
fund them & entrepreneurs that run them

Are You ‘Hands On’ Enough To Succeed In A Startup?

There is no substitute for diving into the key details of a new startup. Executives from large companies have sometimes long forgotten how to do this (“My people will contact your people to work out the details.”). Others hire consultants, or outsource much of the real work. These executives won’t survive long in a startup environment.

An obvious reason is limited funds, but a more important reason is the need to know and intimately understand what is really going on in the business and the market. A diligent entrepreneur should certainly work the important details for his or her startup, especially when it comes to assessing any negative fluctuations in the business.

In his book, “Out-Executing the Competition,” seasoned executive Irv Rothman provides tips to corporate executives on how to dig in and “get their fingernails dirty.” I’ve taken the liberty of extending these for entrepreneurs, based on my own experience:

  • Showcase your creativity on the front lines. Team members and customers expect startup founders to be innovative. Stay in the game by allowing others to see your creativity in action outside your office. CEOs need to do more and observe less. Action is observation in full motion. Don’t be afraid to share your view and ask for help.
  • Keep the vision clear, but make it real. You need to show the team every day how your vision relates to their everyday tasks, with real examples that you can demonstrate. If a team member has a plan that is too ambitious and likely to set them up for failure, he or she needs your direct mentoring to dial it back. Check your ego at the door.
  • Build relationships through “hands-on” assistance. Encourage transparent interaction and make yourself approachable by actively assisting people in their own domain. Getting lonely at the top is your fault, not the responsibility of others. Nurturing relationships is one of the most important items of real work that you can do.
  • Balance the long-term with the short. Plans that are too long-range are cause for skepticism. Instead, set long-term business objectives and develop a framework for the trajectory your team needs to get there. A plan that extends out more than a year or two is not reliable. Strategy and the resultant plan must match up seamlessly.
  • Track the team’s achievement against your plan. Scrupulously manage by and measure against the plan you have built. If a team leader is falling behind plan, he had better come prepared with defensible remedies. On the flip side, if a member is ahead of plan, assess what’s working well, and make sure that can be sustained.
  • Practice regular and consistent reviews. Accountability is crucial. Update meetings must be on the calendar regularly. Be consistent when it comes to these meetings and what you hope to accomplish, and use a template so that all the participants know exactly what will be covered and can prepare accordingly.
  • Show that the buck stops with you. Retain absolute veto power, but try to use it sparingly if at all. Create a system of clear-cut rules about quorums, and trust your team. If you can’t make a meeting, decisions should still get made. For startups, cash control is critical, so that’s a hands-on function that should be the last to be delegated.

Effective entrepreneurs actually enjoy spending time actually doing work (such as selling to customers) rather than just supervising. Too many entrepreneurs are reluctant to start the sales process, preferring to tweak and refine the product. The fun part of supervising is not giving orders and instructions, but mentoring performance and training team members for the next level.

A while back on an ABC “Shark Tank” episode, I watched a young entrepreneur, who had started a new type of retail store, assert that he no longer had to spend time in the store, but was living the LA lifestyle while working to expand his business. The investor sharks attacked this move away from “getting his hands dirty,” and needless to say, he didn’t get the investment he expected.

There will be a lot of demands on your time as an entrepreneur, and you can’t be in all places at once. But there are many times when your presence is critical. These times also count as rolling up your sleeves, or getting dirt under your nails. Don’t be selfish and wash your hands clean. Clean hands won’t out-execute the competition for long in any business.

Written by Martin Zwilling

user Martin Zwilling Founder and CEO,
Startup Professionals

Martin is a veteran startup mentor, executive, blogger, author, tech professional, and angel investor. He is the Founder and CEO of Startup Professionals, a company that provides products and services to startup founders and small business owners.

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