I want to tell you three real stories about the ups and downs of founding a startup, building a team and growing a business. There’s a lesson in each of these stories and my aim for this presentation is not to provide you with more answers, as it’s usually the case with these kinds of presentations, but for you to have more and deeper questions about why you’re doing what you’re doing, who’s it for and what’s it for.
This article is extracted from the speech of Ciprian Borodescu from Demo Day StepFWD 2021. If you prefer video format, check it out:
The first story on Listening is about a charismatic young woman who recently left behind her well-paid job in a multimillion-dollar corporation to start her own business. She always believed that the knowledge she got from working at the corporation would come in handy when founding her own startup. She always dreamt of being in control of her faith, waking up in the morning and not having anyone tell her what to do.
Because she enjoyed working with others, it wasn’t hard for her to put together a small team and crank up their first MVP. Being charismatic, a people’s person, and having the sales experience which she acquired from her previous job, she was confident that selling their product wouldn’t be an issue and so she was comfortable financing their first few months out of her own savings.
6 months into the project things started to unfold in a ravaging manner: the MVP was at their 3rd iteration and prospects were not yet convinced of the value they’ll get out of their product. As a consequence very few customers were willing to take the leap of faith and pay for it; they only had money for another 6 months and desperately needed the revenue; on top of all, one of her team members got a job offer at a respectable company and he was seriously considering leaving the newly formed startup.
She felt stuck, she didn’t know what to do and summoned all the courage that she could gather to call her mentor with whom she hadn’t actually spoken in a while. On one hand she felt bad about it, but desperately needed the advice. Phone rings, and there it is – the most calming “Hello dear!” she heard in months.
After catching him up to the situation she almost felt out of breath, but still wanted to go on. The mentor would listen. She described how she wanted to start fundraising as a way to finance their startup, how the beta can be launched sooner with the few customers that they had and how she could hire more people to scale the operations.
The mentor would listen still.
She goes on to talk about her vision for the next 5 years and how their competitors are doing things in the wrong way, even if they’re better funded. And then she paused for a moment … about 5 seconds of awkward silence settled between the two.
“What do you think?” – she finally asks.
The mentor takes another 5 seconds and then asks her: “What does your team think about all of this?”
“My team!?” – she rhetorically asks in a lower, almost shameful tone. “I did not ask them!”
How many times have we all been in a similar situation where we thought we had things in our control, that our team is just there to silently execute our orders and just because we’re the founders, the solution must obviously come from us.
Aren’t we all guilty of inflicting the same mentality onto ourselves and others: as a founder you’re supposed to always have an answer. That’s the norm. This is so ingrained in our DNA that instead of always parroting answers left and right, to this and that investor, to this and that customer, we forget to slow down, to stop this maddening rush and become the ones who LISTEN!
Ancient philosopher Epictetus said two thousand years ago:
“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”Epictetus
Here we are in 2021 all seeking attention by talking, yelling and always being on or having something to say just about anything.
What about slowing down and asking others for help? And actually LISTEN to what they have to say, not so that you can answer back. Are you afraid that your silence will cause people to not like you? Then talk if you must, but ask questions and listen some more. And see how you like others for a change instead of them liking you.
So, have the patience to listen more and talk less.
Our story continues with the same charismatic young woman who after talking with her mentor gathered her team, presented the problems and asked the team: “What do you all think we should do?”
It felt like the longest 5 seconds of quiet in her life.
Then the awkward silence got interrupted by the most unexpected team member of them all: the one that considered leaving the startup. He started asking questions about what customers were saying and challenging how interviews were conducted. Other team members would answer and offer their perspective on ways they could approach the customer interviews differently. They even suggested things to consider in the new iteration of their product. Pivoting was another strategy that was discussed. Everything was on the table and what was initially scheduled to be a one hour meeting stretched over 3 hours … and pizzas were ordered. Nobody wanted to stop and they kept going.
During all this time the hero entrepreneur of the story just witnessed in awe the miracle that happened. Her team was throwing ideas back and forth, most of which she didn’t even know were possible. She caught herself asking questions because she genuinely needed to understand, to LEARN how to do things better or differently. She concluded that her team knew more about their competitors than herself and was ashamed to admit that she mostly disregarded them instead of learning from them.
Such is the power of listening! You do that to understand the other party, be it a teammate, a customer or even a competitor, to learn about them, about external things or even about yourself. It takes patience to listen, but it takes humility to learn. Being humble doesn’t mean you’re thinking less about yourself, it means thinking about yourself less. Thinking about others more. How can you have an impact on those around you so that in return they have an impact on others. It’s the #givefirst mentality or the servant leadership mindset.
It means looking at your competitors as worthy rivals – someone that you can learn from, that you can respect, even when you meet them on the battle ground.
But being humble is the last thing that crosses our minds when we think about a founder, entrepreneur or investor. What’s the image that we have in our minds when we think about them? It’s the go-getter, right? That person that always has an answer, an opinion no matter the topic. Not showing any vulnerability. We see that in sports, in politics, in business. Everywhere. We celebrate aggressiveness, the iron fist, the stick and we consider the carrot as being for weaklings, mental health is for “spoiled brats” – as I’ve heard an investor saying recently. I think that’s hypocritical and toxic.
Do not mistake that for confidence, that’s impulsiveness, recklessness and cockiness. That’s shallow and it can and will affect your decision making. Looking down on people, customers, competitors … that’s short-term thinking. It’s about winning a battle today and perhaps tomorrow, but it’s losing the war.
Instead, confidence is when you have the courage to say: I don’t know. I don’t know the solution to this problem, but I am willing and able to take this challenge and see it through. I may not have all the information today, I may not have all the answers now, but I believe that I can do it. I believe that my team can do it. And you don’t have to be loud to be confident, in fact confidence can be quiet sometimes.
Confidence is not something that you’re born with, none of us are. But it’s something that you can learn.
As the stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius once said: “If it is not right do not do it; if it is not true do not say it.”
It’s hard for us to be what we cannot see. Being humble is to realize that our victories depend upon other people while being confident is taking action on something that we don’t feel comfortable with.
So, learn to be humble and to be confident.
Our story ends with the same charismatic young woman who after 3 years of grinding she managed to grow the company to a decent size, revenue was no longer an issue and they were getting ready for their first major financing round.
Then, global pandemic strikes. All of the sudden mayhem everywhere. We all felt it last year, so we can understand how our entrepreneur felt.
She’s previously been told that building a startup is hard, one of the most difficult things she’ll probably do in her life, that 1 out of 10 succeed and, still, she embarked on this journey. It’s 1% luck and 99% hustle, they said… Except, with the pandemic, it became much harder. 10 times harder.
She got angry and internally declared her disapproval. Her plans have been thwarted by the COVID-19 crisis. It’s so unfair! It’s so frustrating. It’s just not right …
But, as much as she desired, she couldn’t alter reality. Again she called upon her mentor, who became their advisor in the mean-time. While talking to him she suddenly realized how much of what she was doing was out of her control, that other people, her team are affected by the crisis as well and they might need her help now more than ever.
“Reality is a stubborn thing, so you must embrace it!” – her advisor said.
First, she summoned the team and assured everyone that they have the money to pay the salaries for at least another 12 months. Nobody is getting laid off. Survival is the name of the game now. They needed to reflect and adapt. To go back to the drawing board and think of the impact they can and want to have with their business during or post-crisis. Long-term thinking is to be their mantra.
Second, she started having conversations with all their customers – not business or commercial conversations like she used to have. But personal, meaningful ones, showing genuine care about the people she was talking to. Yes, a few customers froze their accounts, others cancelled, but most of them continued using their product.
9 months later, by the end of 2020, things started to shift in a major way: instead of them looking for funding as it was the case at the beginning of the year, investors were flocking to learn more about their company with the purpose of investing. Her courage and confidence to do what she knew was right, even when everything around her crumbled, was critical. As a result her business is in a unique position to take advantage of everything that happened the past year. At the same time she realizes that it’s less about something that they did that caused the change and more about the world changing around them.
The story of our charismatic young entrepreneur ends here. But ours, mine and yours, continues. What will you make of it?
As we could learn, working hard is not enough. Timing is key and luck is real. But all of this without the courage to lead through hardships is meaningless. Leadership is an inside game: you need to first lead yourself before leading others. You need to take responsibility for your own actions, not blaming others. You need to be brave in the face of adversity and lead by example, not run away and hide. “It’s not my fault, it’s not my problem, don’t blame me!” – these are not phrases that can exist in your vocabulary.
None of us are courageous all the time, but there are key moments when the choices that you make, make you. “No, I won’t agree to that term sheet! No, you’re not the right partner for us! No, I won’t give up!” Train yourself to do the right things, not the easiest things. And I promise you: saying NO today leaves room to say YES to something better tomorrow. But you have to carry your own weight in this world, not having someone else carrying it for you.
As the stoic philosopher Seneca said:
“If you have passed through life without an opponent— no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”Seneca
As a founder, you might feel alone at times. Learn to listen and listen to learn from others and you’ll not be alone. Be welcoming to the rollercoaster of entrepreneurship, turn to your WHY and lead. And remember, leadership is not about satisfying your ego, it’s not the job title you write on your LinkedIn profile, it’s the respect and influence you have without all of that. Build a team of leaders around you, in your startup and empower them to be brave, confident and humble. That foundation is what will make you succeed.
In closing, I wanna invite you, my fellow entrepreneurs, my comrades … let’s all:
- Have the patience to listen more and talk less.
- Learn to be humble and confident.
- Have the courage to lead.