Leading a lean startup is like landing on an enemy beach

You’re onboard a landing craft that is your lean startup. You have no time to get stuck on the beach or wait for help. Your hands are shaking, your heart is pounding. You’re excited and terrified. With you are those who volunteered to help you take over the island, a small group of troops who wait for your command, trusting in your knowledge, courage and leadership. Ahead of you is the unknown, the beachhead, the place where you might succeed or die. What are the odds of you winning? 1%? 5% at best.

What factors are against you? Is it the drenching rain? The heavy equipment? The limited weaponry that you can carry with you? Or is it the enemy hiding in the strongholds, waiting for you to step on the beach, trigger a mine and blow you up? In other words, are you bogged down by limited budged, unchartered new markets, or lousy office amenities?

EVERYTHING IS AGAINST YOU.

Look behind you. What do you see on the faces of your troops? Doubt. Fear. Regret. Skepticism? Some excitement too? Anticipation? They have waited for this day to come. Your job is to turn their emotions into positive outcomes, to pump those who’re unsure up with your enthusiasm, energy, desire to win. You have no time to waste. Another minute, and the ramp drops down. You face enemy fire, drop in ice-cold water and wade forward. You’re vulnerable. Everything can go wrong. You have limited time before your investors will want to see results. You’re worried about having left a secure job, you have bet away a good salary for stock options, maybe even have mortgaged your house, and know the cash balance is always going to be a challenge. How will you pay your team before the customers are going to generate revenue?

And yet, you have one chance to be first to market, to impress the press and analysts. Every moment counts.

To win, you have to deal with three T’s:

1. Time.

The clock is ticking. You have one month to get going, but after that you can expect weekly questions about progress. You’re spending other people’s money. Since you want to produce lasting results and build a strong beachhead that you can actually hold, you need to show progress even without the long term results being available yet. Just like you have to give constant updates to your commanding officer, it’s best to over-communicate small achievements and setbacks and include your investors in the wins and losses, as opposed to not communicating at all and hoping that they won’t ask questions for the first few months. Always be ready to explain how you are using your scarce resources.

2. Team.

People are your most important asset. Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish. You need the best of the best, and yet at first you can’t afford them. Whom can you afford? Those who have been ignited by your idea and are ready to blast through walls under your command. You can’t lose these people. Try not to change your personnel during the first 2 years of the life of your startup. You don’t have time to micromanage people, so you need a team that buys into the mission and is ready to execute without questioning it too much. You need people who believe. Anyone new you take onboard will suck out your time and energy. Bringing them up to speed will cost you 3 to 6 months. It might bleed you to death before you even make it off the beach. Keep this in mind when you hire, and hire carefully. Use interns where possible, give them something to own and set them to work. Use folks on 3 months contracts before you commit to hiring them full time, test them in battle. Don’t replace key people during the first mission. Be careful with changes in key leadership positions. A lot of progress in a startup is made by trial and error. Most of these lessons are learned in your leaders’ heads and get rarely written down. It’s very costly to have to redo the learning too many times in the early days of a startup. Every change in staff is a hole in your startup’s body that might slow it down.

3. Tools.

Let’s take a look at what you need. Are chairs and tables important? Not so much. Anything that's flat and does not collapse will do. Computers? Yes. Software? Yes. A good website that works and doesn’t throw off visitors with buttons that are hard to find, forms that take forever to load, flash plug-ins that don’t work? Definitely. Spend your money on stuff that’s been proven, stuff that works, like Concur, Hubspot and Wordpress. You need these things to succeed, you simply cannot afford dependencies that will slow you down. These essentials will carry you through the fire line and allow you to land on the beachhead and break through defense by focusing on your customers and not on tools that cannot do the job.  Look forward to some posts re what tools to use for marketing, operations, finances etc soon.

Every obstacle you encounter and overcome together builds an invisible link between your team members. In the future this will save you misunderstood communications, unnecessary meetings, and indecision paralysis. If you can survive many little battles together, you can survive the big battle of remaining alive and at the same time build a strong organism that is ready to take on any adversity, which you will encounter aplenty. How do you accomplish all of this?

BELIEVE.

You can do it. It’s why you took the risk of founding your company. You dreamed up an idea, it inspired you, you selected a team and you took a dive. There is no way back. What else can you do in a situation like this except to follow your leader and to depend on your equipment? There is nowhere to go but forward.

Your to-do list:

  • Select your team with care, preferably those who have been through hard times with you before, those whom you trust and who trust you.
  • Set up a weekly report schedule and communicate your wins and losses to your investors without a hitch.
  • Write job descriptions and look for interns who'd be willing to learn on the job.
  • Allocate a portion of the budget to necessary tools and don’t cut corners. Buy what you need to succeed.
  • Keep going forward. Ship something new every week, or even every day.

P.S.: This video of my Nanaimo wreck penetration dive shows another situation where the only way is forward, and getting stuck is not an option. With limited tool and ultimate reliance on your team members.