By Bozhanka Vitanova and Johan Bjurman Bergman
To maximize your chances of building a successful start-up, you should wait until your 42nd birthday to become an entrepreneur, advises a recent MIT study. Unsurprisingly, younger founders are often less experienced and consequently have a lower chance of success. Multiple factors play a role, including industry knowledge, human capital and access to financial resources. We spoke to 10 millennial founders after their first major funding round, in order to understand the critical factor that only comes with experience.
The ability to recognize the need to pick up new skills as a business evolves is at the core of the transition from founder to CEO. An unforgiving, high-stakes, high-pressure environment during the early stage of the scaling process tends to push less experienced founders to rely on skills that have proven successful in the past. A blind adherence to existing strengths is dangerous and often jeopardizes the future of a nascent promising start-up.
A critical transition for the newly minted CEO is moving from product skills to people skills. A high-growth start-up leader needs to make themselves redundant in day-to-day operations and shift their focus to learning how to assemble a strong team, align their motivations and incentives, and build a thriving organizational culture.
How can I build a new entrepreneurial skill set?
Entrepreneurial capabilities largely stem from experience, and from learning that occurs in a stretch zone, beyond our comfort zone and before our panic zone. Reducing a vague and uncertain process to phased mechanic motions can help build an individual’s database of achievement and learnings. The following steps draw an analogy from Singer’s Five Steps Motor Learning Strategy.
The first step in building new skills is recognizing the need for those skills. People tend to be invested in their present way of working, especially if it has been successful to that point. Most founders can build these new skills, as long as they are willing to take a step back and admit that their old habits have outlived their usefulness.
Sly Lee, co-founder and CEO of Emerge, shares the point at which he understood what new skills he needed to acquire to continue growing his start-up: “Because we have such a high bar at our company in terms of talent, during some phases of the company my co-founders and I realized that almost 50% of our time was being spent on HR.”
“At these times, we were tempted to offload all this work to someone else. But then we realized that maintaining passion for people development had to be a core business priority. HR had to become a new obsession.”
Instead of picturing a scenario where a new employee makes frequent mistakes, the people expert imagines a situation where their team members exceed expectations. Crafting this image with the support of a network of other founders and then sharing it with the employee in question helps build confidence in both the founder and team members.
Newsha Ghaeli, co-founder of Biobot Analytics explains: “It’s no longer just about us. I am responsible for others’ success. It’s an enormous responsibility. What helped me was honest conversations with a close circle of two to three entrepreneurs who are a few steps before me and can help me craft a new image of success.”
The new employees are the ones who carry out the core deliverables and shape organizational culture. To increase the chances of success, founders need to give their team the same undivided attention they previously gave the company’s product.
Mike Selden, co-founder and CEO of Finless Foods, understood the need to shift to using what he identifies as “soft skills, such as hiring and team and organization building”. In that process, he focused on developing his employees’ skills and aligning their motivations with the company’s objectives.
Most founders struggle with relinquishing direct control of day-to-day operations. At first, letting go often takes more energy than doing it yourself, which creates an additional barrier to delegating. The challenge is to let go without overthinking, resisting the temptation to ‘help out’ and micromanage.
Abi Ramanan, co-founder & CEO of ImpactVision shares: “I can make decisions quickly and have developed the capacity to have difficult conversations, while steering clear of micro-management. Letting go can be daunting at the beginning, but you get progressively better with every decision, until that becomes your way of operating.”
Taking time out to reflect on improvements for the next try is essential. Understanding potential adjustments allows founders to continue on the path of perpetual improvement.
Jake Reisch, co-founder and CEO of Eversound, shares his tactics: “I strategically take time off at least once a quarter to reflect on my performance. I work with coaches, who help me adjust and enhance skills I’ll need as my venture continues to grow.”
Old skills, new ways
Experience will continue to correlate positively with success. But innovation in the skills acquisition process can help younger founders build the needed skills agility to give the 42-year-old entrepreneur a run for their money. Maintaining awareness of the changing demands on core skills at different stages of the start-up journey, and tactically going through the steps needed to acquire new skills, can build the muscle memory needed to thrive in the long run.
Bozhanka Vitanova is a National Science Foundation I-Corps Instructor, Brandeis Innovation Center and Johan Bjurman Bergman is a Product Development Lead, EF Education First
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius