A startup founder needs a vast skill set to be successful. Many startup founders are in their late twenties to mid-thirties. By that time they have typically gained some experience from being responsible for projects, selling, communicating with co-workers, bosses, customers or vendors, developing plans and strategies, developing and managing a budget, and maybe even managing others and hiring and firing people. If you are a young entrepreneur in high school, college or somewhere in between, you likely have not had the opportunity to learn from these experiences. Reading about the theory of management and how business works doesn’t count. While some of the principles apply, the execution is far more complex and you can’t always Google the answer. Turns out – soft skills are really important. I’m still not sure why we call skills “soft” that are critical to success and sometimes hard to learn.
A great idea, a large market opportunity, and a great story are compelling but ultimately mean nothing without the ability to execute. Successful execution for a young startup founder requires clawing your way up the learning curve by combining experiential learning, quality mentorship, research and, as Jim Collins says, “getting the right people on the bus” (“Good to Great”, Jim Collins – a must read for young entrepreneurs). Like most everything else entrepreneurial, it is like building the plane while you are flying it. If you use all the resources at your disposal you will, hopefully, finish assembly and learn how to refuel while in-flight (funding) or learn how to land before you need to.
So how does a young startup founder get the experience they need to fulfill their executive role? Here are a few suggestions:
- Get a job working in a startup – Yea I know, part of the reason you want to be an entrepreneur is so you don’t have to work for anyone else. I hate to break it to you but everyone works for somebody else in some way. Ultimately, business owners answer to shareholders, customers, or the bank. Get over it, keep the big picture in mind, and go to school in a startup.
- Get a job in any business – Sorry, I used the “j” word again. Learn about how a business operates and perform some of the functions like project management, selling, customer service, etc . . . and don’t say you don’t have time. Prioritize and make time. It’s part of accelerating the learning curve.
- Identify trusted mentors – They can help you learn the details of certain aspects of business by shadowing them or having in-depth conversations about best practices. In addition, they might also give you some guidance that will keep you from making a costly mistake. I often say that I wish I could have learned some things in a less expensive manner along the way. I probably would’ve had I listened to the advice I was given.
- Research topics – Watch videos, attend webinars and seminars – you know, the same level of energy and extensive research methods used when you wanted to learn how to code, make something or buy an expensive piece of electronics.
- Use all your contacts – Use your contacts and the contacts of your mentors to identify the right people to help you move forward. Figure out a way to engage them, get them committed to the cause and “get them on the bus”. Young entrepreneurs cannot do it alone. Even if you could, you don’t really want to. For me, success is even sweeter when experienced with team mates achieving a common goal in challenging circumstances.
The Takeaway – Your technical skill and product knowledge are important but insufficient to turn a good idea into a successful company. You need the skills and knowledge required for execution and operations. As with software development, you can’t be good at all the languages so get some help to fill in the gaps. The founder role, especially the CEO/COO functions, require a vast skill set. It’s a journey to get there. Have an intentional development plan, execute the learning processes and you’ll grow into the role.