Finishers Wanted

In a recent post, I reflected on the importance of founders’ abilities to scale with a business. Founders are amazing people. They do things that “regular” people can’t or just won’t do because the average person is too risk-averse, too afraid, and too sane. I want to further develop that idea and talk about the importance of not only being a founder but a “finisher” — the mindset and approach that enables founders to scale.

These days, the average tech startup takes 8+ years from founding to get an exit, and so much work and effort goes into trying to make a startup work that institutional memory can be short. For founders concerned about how the story of their company will be told, there is only one real solution: write it yourself. To do this, you need to finish what you started, either personally or through the culture you create and the people that you bring into the business.

Here are a few thoughts on how to be a finisher that I have drawn from my experience working with hundreds of entrepreneurs along with my own journey.

1. Find “True North.”

“If you don’t know where you are going then any road will get you there.” — Lewis Carroll

For many founders, the motivation to start their business comes from a passionate, almost religious commitment to solve some deep problem. They should be deeply committed and in love with a vision, and yet be flexible on the tactics or behaviors that get them to the eventual outcome. Often this vision aligns deeply with something intrinsic about themselves that creates what we call “founder-opportunity fit.”

For us, founder-opportunity fit is an important predictor of whether the founder will have the day-to-day motivation to slog through the difficult path ahead and finish. The nature of the challenge changes over time, so founders that are motivated primarily by money, fame, prestige, etc. are rarely able to muster the grit to finish the job.

2. Win as a team.

The lone genius disrupting the world with her intellect after years of toiling in isolation is a myth. Innovation generally requires cross-functional teams and intense collaboration over time. Entrepreneurs who aren’t able to recruit and retain amazing people to their cause rarely finish the journey — they become too burned out and lack the horsepower needed to win. Specifically, founders need to be able to recruit executives that are more experienced, accomplished, intelligent, and skilled than themselves (and pay them less money, at least initially, than they would get elsewhere) in order to realize the potential of their company.

3. Eye on the prize.

Just as there is a unique skill set required in founding a business–creativity, radical self-belief, the intestinal fortitude to actually make the leap–there is also a skill set necessary for finishing the job–planning, execution, sound decision-making, etc. While our approach at Kickstart is to help founders scale up whenever possible, entrepreneurial teams must recognize that sometimes the roles on the team need to change in order to finish the journey. It can be very difficult for talented, ambitious people to separate their own perception of themselves from the ultimate success of the company. This is probably the biggest struggle for founders and one that nearly all will face at some point during their entrepreneurial journey.

Finishers recognize that the important thing is winning as a company. They know that the competitive landscape for most companies is hotly contested and will not allow time for recovery from amateur mistakes while trying to scale. This requires founders to be self-aware enough to learn new skills where possible, plug holes where needed, and do whatever is required to achieve the end goals regardless of title or credit.

4. Be a grinder.

With the rise of the prominence of entrepreneurship in popular imagination, there is an increased glamorization associated with being an entrepreneur. The rise in the number of conferences, meetups, online discussions, and blogs can be valuable, but they can also prove to be a distraction from actually doing the hard work of moving the business forward.

We are wary of entrepreneurs that seem to be more interested in being part of the “entrepreneur scene” than in grinding away at their own business. I recall my experience in the early days of Kickstart. It was just me, alone, working from my home office on the first seed fund in Utah. Kickstart was a series of ambitious goals on my whiteboard and a consistent knot in my stomach that if I didn’t make progress each day, the dream would die.

The existential fear of the founder can be paralyzing, but it can also lead to shocking clarity of purpose. There are many different approaches to work pace and style, but volume of effort is critical in a startup. I have been impressed with the power of giving consistent, focused, steady effort over time.

For a company to be able to work this way, its leaders must apply some discipline and planning to the creativity and agility of the startup. If they do this effectively, they will be rewarded by the loyalty and productivity of their teams. This is more of a “marathon” approach vs. the “binge/ purge” work culture. Binge/purge can yield nice short-term gains but isn’t sustainable. Instead, it’ll often lead to burnout, low loyalty cultures, weak accountability, and ultimately risk the loss of the best people on the team.

In summary, the best founders are also finishers, but only if they are unwavering in their objective, consistent in their efforts, flexible in their roles and contributions, and inclusive in sharing success with a strong and complementary team.

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