Business World

Sunday 8 December 2019

Road to success can be a difficult one – so focus on 'the mission'

"Not a role model/I walk a hard road to follow/I sold bottle of sorrow/then chose poems and novels." – Inspectah Deck from 'A Better Tomorrow' (Wu-Tang Clan)

Not half enough is written about the people behind the company.
Not half enough is written about the people behind the company.
Dylan Collins

Dylan Collins

A lot of news stories make start-up journeys seem pretty linear. 'Incubator' to 'Angel' to 'Seed' to 'Series A' to something else. They're almost always the exact opposite (though obviously we only tell journalists the good stuff).

In reality, company progress is often something like: forward, backwards, sideways, sideways, forward. For almost all start-ups, 'hard' is normal. 'Grind' is normal. Iterative, marginal improvements are normal. Talk to folks who've been on that journey: regardless of the outcome (whether they win or lose), the stories are often surprisingly similar.

Of course, sometimes it's harder than that. For those companies that are genuinely trying to disrupt or bring a new category to the market, by definition you'll be considered wrong by practically everyone before they finally accept that you're right. Y'know, on top of everything else.

But just because it's hard, it doesn't mean it's wrong. The advice normally handed out about managing this kind of journey is to understand what you're aiming for and to stay focused. It's broadly sensible stuff. However, when you're building a start-up, it's sometimes not enough to focus, you also have to actively ignore.

Last week, I was at dinner in London with a founder who has been building his company for about the last seven years. They're doing pretty well (solid growth, considered a market leader in several countries) and have continued to keep the company impressively lean.

Despite the fact that this founder is an exceptionally talented guy, and despite the fact that if the company gets acquired he'll do very well indeed, he's now being financially overtaken by many of his (mediocre) university classmates in the economics stakes as they make 'partner', 'SVP' and similar positions across banks, law firms and corporates.

That wasn't exactly his plan when he started.

Now if (or rather when) he exits, and I strongly suspect he will, the tables will change dramatically. But until then, on top of the regular start-up grind he has, he's also dealing with a constant nagging doubt which only a network of successful friends can create.

Staying focused when everyone else around you is achieving is brutal.

I think this is why I often describe company objectives as 'the mission'. It sounds rather melodramatic but it's that same tone which you want to convey (to yourself if nobody else) in order to demand concentration.

Sometimes the mission is to reach a certain size. Sometimes the mission is simply to survive longer than your competitors. Stay the course. Complete the mission. Watch the first 'Rambo' movie, you'll pick it up pretty fast.

There's an awful lot written about the building of companies and not half enough written about the building of the people behind them. As anyone who has founded a company will know (and anyone who has not simply won't) you spend almost all of your life equidistant from success and failure.

For many founders (especially CEOs), it's very hard to talk openly about this. In fact, not talking openly about it is essentially part of your job description. Over the years I've learned a few simple hacks which make this more manageable:

* Work with investors who have built companies before. They tend to have a broader appreciation for the psychological impact of company-building.

* Avoid reading too much non-industry tech/start-up news. It's generally noise (obvious caveats). In particular, don't obsess about the mega-deals, it's completely pointless.

* Figure out one thing where you can be better than everyone else. Obsess about that instead.

* Double the amount of time you spend thinking about what you're going to do next.

Part of the role of investors and board members, whether we like it or not, is to make sure the CEO and the other founders are okay. There's one angel investor I know who excels at this. He takes his founders out to the pub or for dinner and he barely talks operational topics. He always starts with "how are you doing?" and usually follows with "how's everything at home? Are you exercising? How much have you slept this week?". It's an approach which has made him very much in-demand as an investor, not because founders think he asks soft questions but because they realise he asks the important ones.

So tell me: how are you doing?

Dylan Collins (@MrDylanCollins) is a technology and media investor. He is CEO of SuperAwesome, Europe's largest kids/teens digital marketing platform and Venture Partner with Hoxton Ventures, an early-stage venture capital fund based in London. He also sits on the boards of Potato (a leading marketing engineering agency) and Brown Bag Films (Europe's top kids animation studio).

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