Good, Bad, OMG: My First 9 Months as a Startup CEO
When I decided to start a business, I dove straight in.
Right into the deep end of the pool and started treading water, trying to keep my head above water. Now, nine months later and it is safe to say that I’m staying afloat. Sure, some days I feel like a 6-year old gasping for air versus a streamlined Michael Phelps. But I’m still in the pool, and that’s what counts.
When I tell people that I started a business, they often ask me why:
You had a great career at Marketo. You could have gone to work anywhere you wanted. Why did you start a business instead?
I have to admit that in the very beginning, my motives were selfish. I romanticized the notion of owning a business. My idea of being a CEO was visions of #girlboss, Shark Tank, pop the bubbly moments. The world was my oyster!
That was a short-lived euphoria. Pretty quickly, I realized that being a CEO was not about me at all. If my mission was to impact businesses and accelerate revenue, my first and main focus had to be partnering with my clients and shifting their mindset. And just like that, the bubbly was on the backburner.
The best part? I realized that I care deeply about the success of my clients and my team members. And that only when my clients and my team realize their goals, will I be able to accomplish my goal. Once my mindset changed, I started to swim faster, stronger, together with the people who are bringing my vision to life day in and day out.
The five key lessons I learned along the way:
Now, I know that all sounds like smooth sailing. I promise you, it wasn’t. The past nine months have been full of so many good, bad, and OMG why didn’t anyone tell me about this moments.
#1: Be crystal clear (and write it down).
As a pretty casual and optimistic person, I made the mistake of assuming that all of my early partners and team members were on the same page as me. That they agreed with my vision, mission, pace, and communication style without needing a lot of formal structure. Not only was that assumption incorrect, but it wasn’t fair to my team members. Even the smallest teams need clear communication and alignment around expectations.
How do you avoid this? Know your DISC profile, and the profiles of your early partners, employees and team members. Different learning, communication styles and preferences are keys to long term success, but only when you have the insight and formalities to respect and protect everyone involved.
#2: Pick your partners wisely.
Take some real time to evaluate who you will start your business with. Please don’t rush on this one! Once you have a few people at your side, make sure you communicate clearly with each other what your expectations are and that you have alignment. Check in regularly because the undeniable reality of starting a business is that things are fluid for a longer period of time than expected in most cases. As an advisor reminded me recently, it’s easy to change and update partnerships, but it’s much harder to undo them entirely.
#3: Don’t be afraid to acknowledge change.
As you form your team, document the potential value contributions and goals for each team member at the start of the business relationship. Check in every 3-6 months to evaluate and determine their actual value and contributions. Make changes quickly and decisively where needed. Don’t let resentments or miscommunications linger, unresolved.
#4: Listen to (healthy) peer pressure.
As a new CEO, working with a peer group like Vistage Worldwide has been a revolutionary change in how I think and navigate hard situations. The peers in my Vistage group are seasoned business leaders, and they don’t have a stake in my business, so their advice is honest and genuine. Case in point: an adviser from my group recently told me to stop saying that I have never been a CEO before. He reminded me that all CEOs were first timers at one point and learning the ropes is just part of the deal.
#5: The sky isn’t falling, I promise.
One of my key team members reminds me a lot to look back and celebrate the small victories that have brought us to the present day. Acknowledge, document and share the accomplishments with your team and clients regularly no matter how small they are at the beginning. This is not a race. It is a journey with pitfalls, changes in direction, upgrades, backwards movements, forks in the road and “Do Not Enter” signs. Your success is decided by how you navigate and pace yourself through those twists and turns, while keeping your foot on the gas and never losing the motivation to get where you ultimately need to go.
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