The Early Founder Growth Gap

May 13, 2021

Execution is everything. Or is it?

In the world of startups, there is one fundamental belief we can all agree on. Execution is absolutely and utterly fundamental. If as a founder you can’t execute, you’re nothing. You don’t even get off the ground. It is your ability to execute that ultimately gives you permission to move forward.

But execution must be accompanied by a human quality - a quality that ensures not just consistency in that execution, but an ability to battle on regardless of the setbacks. Another well-acknowledged fundamental - resilience.

These are well documented and recognised ideas - but they seem to focus largely on the formative early years. But if you’re one of the lucky ones to make it to Series A and beyond, how important do these ideas continue to be? Here is a rather rudimentary chart referencing ‘execution’ in isolation.

The narrative here suggests that as a founder - the importance of your own ability to execute wains as you reach the later-early-stage rounds. The £10m Series A lands, and suddenly you’re expected to grow - both revenues and team - like your life depends on it.

The responsibility for execution now falls on the shoulders of your extended team, and your personal priorities shift to not only hiring for but also retaining that team - and that means you need to create an environment where people have purpose, feel included, and can execute to the best of their ability.

Becoming a leader takes more time than the startup clock allows for

My assumption is that many founders who are thrust into this position almost certainly haven’t been in it many times before, if at all. They don't have a definitive set of rules or a guide for how to do this - and therefore they might do one or a bunch of the following things:

Make strategic hires into senior management positions to 'buy-in' leadership.

They are now surrounded by experienced heads who take some of the burden of leadership, and at the same time learn from this experience. But there is only so much responsibility management can take for the leadership of the business. And what's to say these senior hires have leadership abilities worth learning from?

Hire consultants to help define the organisation and culture.

Whether being intentional or not, by this point an organisation and a culture exist - and therefore codifying what's been created, or doing the legwork to make it better, becomes an essential next step for scale. But just how many founders continue to invest in building this culture once the last consultant has left the building?

Invest in executive coaching or leadership training.

One of the most common moves a founder might make - providing an outlet for their stresses, strains and gripes, whilst being given the support they need in order to make informed decisions. But just how much impact can happen with a two-hour session every 2 weeks?

Now what's important to mention here, is that these are all valuable and sound decisions. But the reality is that their impact on the founder's ability to lead is minor and incremental - which in reality is the only way this kind of personal development can occur. This next chart sheds some light on what might happen here.

The founder grows, but arguably not at the pace required of them. It's merely the start of their journey towards competence (and ultimately excellence) as a leader. But is it all too little too late? How many companies, whose founders followed this path, have failed I wonder?

How many don’t even make it beyond the Series A because a founder has been fundamentally unprepared for leadership? Or how many founders have been ousted from their own companies to make way for more experienced CEOs?

How many companies aren’t making it to Series A at all because they’ve not been able to get what they need out of their team? How many fail because a technical founder hasn’t acquired the communication skills required to secure investment or persuade talent to join?

Leadership development is not something you just turn on. There is no overnight fix. It takes conscious energy and effort to build this muscle and learn these skills - so when the time comes, as a founder you’re ready.

Great leadership is rooted in three foundational skills

The above chart paints a new picture. It acknowledges that execution is paramount in the early stages, but it also emphasises that founder personal growth must happen in parallel to the growth of the business.

So as and when that inevitable tipping point arrives, you’re equipped with the foundational capabilities to building a lasting company, high-performing teams, and become a CEO. But what are those foundational abilities?

Building resilience. Resilience is your ability to manage stress and adapt to adversity - essentially looking after your mental health. 'Staying power' is just as important later on as it is in the early stages; the nature of the stress and challenges simply evolve.

Developing clarity of thought. The startup journey is a never-ending sequence of decisions, where founders are tasked with wrangling a testing and confusing combination of logic, data, heart and intuition. A clear and focussed mind is a real asset throughout.

Nurturing emotional intelligence. Founders with strong EQ are the ultimate leaders. The benefits of building can be felt from day one - leading to better communication and better people management - laying the bedrock of a strong and united culture.

So in the absence of the time and money to invest significantly in personal growth, what are the ways in which early-stage founders could work on the above?

Addressing the Early Founder Growth Gap

Establish regular meet-ups with peer founders. Finding time to bring a group of your peers together on a regular basis can do wonders for your mental health - if only to help you realise your experience is not entirely unique.

Tip: Find communities of relevant founders through the likes of Twitter and Meetup, and be the one to take initiative to organise a dedicate catch-up.

Meditate for 10 minutes every day. Meditation and mindfulness have been popularised in startup circles for good reason. The state of equanimity that can be achieved with regular meditation can not only provide great perspective but also help mute some of the passion and emotion from decision making.

Tip: There are plenty of free apps that help with building a meditation habit, with Calm and Headspace two of the more popular ones.

Attend group coaching sessions. Time spent with peer founders and a qualified coach can unlock doors you didn't know existed. The shared experience of opening up for a few hours once a month can broaden your horizons and build incredible self-awareness.

Tip: Availability of these can vary from city to city, and it's something that Forward Partners may explore in the future - watch this space!

Reading on psychology, humanity and spirituality. Learning more about the study of being human can introduce you to powerful frameworks and ideas that might help you make sense of your own situation.

Tip: Sam Harris’ Waking Up book and Making Sense podcast are fantastic for this. Highly recommend.

Define key behaviours and principles v0.1 early on. Taking some time to think about how you and your small team should operate, can help ensure consistency in your execution, but also streamline and expedite decision making.

Tip: The awesome folks at NOBL compiled team and culture decks from 30 companies, which might inspire your early thinking here. That said, don’t be tempted to invest too heavily here in the very early stages. A lot will change!

Seek out people/leadership focussed angel and seed investors. Putting some energy into finding investors who focus on personal development and coaching could be one of the best decisions you make. Fighting to get them on your cap table will ensure even as you get head down in product, you'll have someone on point to help you focus energy on yourself.

Tip: Ask for hints and tips from other founders. They will be the ones with first-hand knowledge of who just talks the talk, and who actually walks the walk.

Establish a ritual of reflection every day. Reflection is the absolute cornerstone of learning. 5 minutes at the end of the day to reflect on what happened, where you might improve, and how you might change things, can contribute to a big boost in self-awareness and improvement.

Tip: Stick a 15-minute meeting in your diary at the end of every day to act as a reminder, but also to help you frame it as a meeting you shouldn’t miss!

Request feedback from the people around you every day. Feedback is invaluable for covering your blindspots. As you get caught up in the day to day of 'doing', it's nice to get alternative perspectives not on what you're doing, but how you're doing it.

Tip: Read this excellent article from the folks at Buffer about how to give and receive feedback. Well worth your time.

Personal growth, like startup growth, requires consistency and commitment. The most important idea to embrace here, is that these rituals and habits will not only prepare you for the later stages - but they will also give you the best possible chance of getting there.

This isn’t just work on yourself - this is work on the company too.

Authors Note: It’s worth noting the content of this is equally applicable to non-venture founders, as well as early employees at venture backed companies. However the focus on venture backed founders is a result of the particularly unique pressure and high expectations of being the founder of a high growth company - with significantly greater responsibility to grow as a leader.

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May 13, 2021