Back in 2001 when I was a first-time CEO, I struggled to grow the company to beyond a certain point. We had a good product that filled a very important market need, so the company quickly grew to over a hundred customers. But as we grew, we struggled to consistently provide the quality that led the market and fueled our rapid growth. We often handed large responsibilities to our employees that stretched them beyond their experience. Sometimes they excelled, other times they crashed and burned.
As we struggled to get over the hump, I sought advice from multiple people. I found no shortage of advisors who were quick to push solutions that were sure to solve all my problems. The challenge was, very little of the input actually solved any of my challenges. As I look back, the common thread among all the flawed guidance was the lack of investment to truly understand the problem and custom-tailor a solution that worked in my situation. Most advisors spent maybe five to ten minutes asking a few questions about the nature of our company’s challenges, then proceeded to give 30 to 60 minutes worth of “off-the-shelf” recommendations from their limited understanding of the problem. To say I was frustrated was an understatement.
But things changed when I sat down with Jenkin, an inventor with both a strong technical background as well as great startup execution experience. Jenkin asked me dozens of questions over a two-hour period. He listened to my responses, which often led to three or four more questions down a specific path. Once he had a good grasp of the problem, we spent the next hour brainstorming possible solutions. We worked as a team to craft some specific process changes, role changes and expectation changes. Unlike the quick hit, “drive-by” advice I received from others, Jenkin was willing to dive deep to truly understand the essence of the problem. He invested significant time in me and my company’s problems, resulting in tangible changes that helped us clear several hurdles.
From this, I distilled the observations below.
In most cases, the devil is in the details. Hard problems are rarely solved from the 60th floor of an ivory tower. You have to be willing to get down to the ground floor and dive deep into the problem to understand specific strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
Strategy and Tactics Matter
Most advisors and consultants prefer to operate at the strategic level. This makes sense as war strategy guides the overall campaign. However, great strategies still fail without strong battlefield tactics. Don’t assume that smaller startups with younger founders know how to implement good battlefield tactics. Don’t be afraid to plan out the details of specific battles to ensure the success of the larger strategy. This takes more time, but improves your odds for victory.
Look for advisors with strong operational experience. In football, it’s great to have a wizard of an offensive coordinator who can craft fantastic game plans against your opponent. But without the offensive line coach to teach blocking technique, the receivers coach to teach route running, and the quarterbacks coach to build the ability to identify and exploit defensive sets, the game plan falls apart. If your offensive coordinator can’t also coach the fundamental skills, you’ll have to either supplement with other coaches or find a different person to lead your offense.
Startup execution is a very different problem compared to large company execution. Look for advisors who have successfully executed in smaller startup environments. Flying a Boeing 787 Dreamliner complete with advanced auto pilot and computerized navigation is a much different skill than racing a motorcycle down the speedway.
The startup community is full of people who have tasted some success. Many position themselves as advisors based on their past victory or victories. But just because someone is a great athlete who has won a few trophies doesn’t mean they are a great coach or take the time to give you great advice. When you compete at the highest levels, you need coaches who go deep with their understanding of you, your company, and your challenges. Quick, casual advice is cheap. Look for coaches that roll up their sleeves instead of pontificate. Team up with advisors that take the time to build a broad and deep understanding of your market and your needs — invest in advisors who invest in you. Success is within reach if you build a team of coaches who don’t just point the way but help you build the road to get there.