Over the last years Fred —my business partner at Adapttech— and I have been trying to figure out what are the most important characteristics an entrepreneur can have. Not surprisingly, we feel the most important ones are the top two in this article.
What I've seen from my limited experience, and I really emphasized the limited experience part, is that most successful entrepreneurs have a set of common traits that I decided to gather in this article.
1. Knowing when to be flexible and when to be stubborn
This is a personal one. This is what I feel makes the difference between success and failure in a startup. It's hard, because just like raising a child, there is no manual: you only hope for the best and give all you've got from your heart. When you are just starting everybody seems to have the secret formula for success. They don't. Everybody has some piece of advise they want to give you, and naturally, down the road they contradict themselves.
So, for example, they will tell you that the most important thing is to raise money. Then others tell you that the most important thing is to get in touch with your future clients to get your business validated and being able to pivot as soon as possible. Well, it is all very complicated: without money you cannot travel around asking your clients what they think of your idea, but at the same time you cannot go ask investors for money unless you have already checked that there is a market for your product. It becomes somewhat like the chicken and the egg.
Let me tell you one thing right away: the market is never wrong. Take this as delivered by the heavens themselves. Even if you think your idea is the best solution possible for the problem at hand, if the market doesn't like it —or doesn't understand it— they will not buy it. And guess what? It's not that they are a bunch of morons, is that you are the one who didn't know how to be flexible when you had to (read this).
The same thing applies the other way around. Sometimes we see ourselves taking a decision because we have a better understanding of what's coming up next. During the early stages of development of Adapttech, we decided to work with .stl files for the 3D modelling. Now, many experts told us that this wasn't the best format to work with, but we had a reason to stick to it: we had a feeling 3D printers would invade the market soon, and 3D printers talk in .stl. Only time will tell if we made the right decision.
Bruce Lee once said that "Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.'' This is what I meant with being flexible, just make sure that the reason you change into different shapes if because of the market and your customers, and not your own ideas. Try to validate every single one of them with the market, and make sure to pivot at the right moment: fail often, fail fast and fail cheap.
This is one of the most important things that seems to elude most entrepreneurs. Once they get a taste of the new world they are tackling, they want a piece of everything... everywhere.
I think it's in part because of what they tell you on all acceleration programs and entrepreneurship courses: go out, make contacts, talk to people, join groups, validate your ideas... but they don't teach you when —or how— to stop. And it all starts to affect the way you do your work because the fear of missing out is always constant. You start to think that if you are not present in every single meeting or business event you are simply going to "miss the big opportunity''.
I feel you need to follow the 80%-20% rule: dedicate 80% of your effort to the top 20% of core important things you need to get done. Starting your own business time is a luxury you can't afford. Focus. Get planned. Don't fear missing out on some things, fear missing out on important things. What are these important things? No one is in better position to know it than yourself. Prioritize, make the most out of your day, and focus on delivering the best result possible in the place where you want to make an impact. The main problem is not that you are not able to go everywhere and do everything... is that the effect you'll have is much less than if you were focused on what matters the most.
3. Choosing your team
I cannot stress this enough. Your company is only as valuable as your team. Your product is only as good as your team and your success is only as great as your team. Team, team, team, team, and then keep thinking about your team. They are the living soul of your company, and if there is something I can tell you that makes Adapttech what it is today, is the men and women that come to work everyday to the office.
We have a very short list of requisites for hiring people at Adapttech: they must be smarter than both Fred and I... and they must be better than us at doing the task at hand. Naturally, there are more things we consider, but these two are a must. Have you ever heard that the blessing of having friends is that you get to pick them? It couldn't be more true when it comes to your team: the biggest opportunity relies on the fact that you get to pick them.
Another critical point regarding the choosing of your team is that you should avoid to either expand it too soon or too late. Both of them are equally wrong, and the results are equally catastrophic. Knowing when to take these decisions can be very difficult and tricky, but that's the reason why not everybody does it.
I have purposely skipped the most important part that precedes all of these: finding the right business partner. I constantly kid about this when I speak in public, because I say that finding Fred was harder to find than my wife... and in all true, I'm only partially kidding. Fred is a great business partner because he has all the qualities I lack, and at the same time I try to be a good business partner to him by covering his weak spots. This has makes us a great team, because we try hard to protect each other on the things that we just know we are not good at.
4. Humility —AKA knowing who is best
There is so much to talk about this... and it's specially hard for me since humility is not —and has never been— my strongest point. As my wife constantly says, I have to work on that. Having said that, let's go back to the part of finding the right person for the right job.
You see, one of the things that makes your team specially strong and healthy is to always keep in mind that every triumph is collective, and no one wins alone (a corollary to our rule #2): don't be an asshole). If you always keep this in focus, it's easy to agree that sometimes the best person for a particular job might not be you. There is a natural reason why you hire an electronic engineer for electronics and a art designer for art. You need to assess and recognize when you are harming the company by spending time doing a certain job when there is someone that might be better than you.
What I've seen in most entrepreneurs is that because they founded the company, they think they are the best ones for managing it. Not necessarily. You might not even be the best one to do pitches or presentations. Keep an open mind, because one of the best managing decisions you can make is knowing when to step down.
5. Adapt and overcome
This one is stolen from the US Navy SEALs, but it's as good as it can get. Mike Tyson, the boxer, once said something that stuck in my head: "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face''. I used to fight in Karate, and let me tell you he couldn't be more right. Almost nothing goes according to plan. I mean, the result can very well be what you were planning, but it is extremely unlikely that the whole process runs smoothly and without any problem whatsoever. If you have, in fact, managed to get that, please quit your job and open a consultancy firm. I know a thousand guys that would be willing to pay you a ton of money for getting things done without a single hiccup.
If you are one of us mortals, then you know what I'm talking about: Murphy is part of our everyday life. Now, that things go sour is not itself a bad thing. What is catastrophic is for things to go wrong and not take any correction upon it. Is just like a bad leader. The worst leaders are not the worst because they make bad decisions. They are the worst because they make no decisions at all.
After all, the most important task you have as a company leader is to make sure every single one of your employees can do their job properly, and if you are not able to anticipate problems, you better become good at handling them.
Photo Credits: Fernando Veludo / N Factos