5 steps to avoid collapse for startup founders. (4 min read)

falling down house

Imagine you are fortunate enough to build your own house and you can make it any way you want.  Would you begin by hiring a contractor and start building the kitchen?  After all, that is where most people congregate and where you eat as a family most of the time.  Arguably, the kitchen is the most important and used room in almost every house so it is a really good place to start, right?   If so, you might spend a good amount of time on design layout, appliances, cabinets, and then begin to rough in the plumbing and electricity, frame the wall, and then build the rest of the house around it as you go. It must be as good a place to start as any, right?

If you choose this approach, it may work for a while, maybe years, but without a sound foundation, thought process, environmental and human review you may watch as your house begins to crumble and start falling down around you.  You may pray that a hurricane or other dramatic surprise does not knock it down. You may decide to pray often just in case.

If you agree that is not the best way to start an important and complex endeavor then I have one question:

Why do you think most entrepreneurs do just about the same thing?

They jump right in and start building a product, service and company before they have taken the time to think through the entire process and how it fits their life goals and desires.

I don’t know why but unfortunately this is how almost every one of them starts.

If you are interested in learning how to avoid falling into the abyss like too many other startups, read on.  If not, thanks for getting this far.

Here is a quick personal story to introduce the steps:  A good friend and old colleague of mine called me recently to discuss his next career.  He is a talented guy and a good leader.  He has been doing some soul searching lately about what his next step will be.  I offered him some thoughts based upon what I have learned about him after 20 years and thought it would be fun to also give him some homework since he is contemplating starting his own business.  Here is what I have asked him to do BEFORE he starts working on his germ of an idea.

I hope it is helpful to others.

Please note that I gathered most of this from two external sources – Will it Fly? by Pat Flynn (no relation) and GO Put your Strengths to Work by Marcus Buckingham – and based upon my experience with 17 different startups.  I think following these initial five steps before you do anything (and I mean anything) is quite helpful as it puts you in a solid frame of mind before you take the market by storm.

Step 1 – Project 5 years into the future to create the ideal scenario for yourself

  1. I asked him to take a piece of paper, fold it into 4 symmetrical boxes and write down the four most important areas of his life at the top of each square
  2. Then, I asked him to write down how each of these categories would ideally manifest themselves were he to look back in five years.

For instance, let’s say Health was a category. He could say that (in five years’ time) he would be as healthy then as he was in his 30s, that he would run 3-5 miles every other day and swim 3 miles every week, his cholesterol would be within acceptable limits and so on.  I gave him a week to complete and recommended that he do it in pen (or pencil) as the act of writing it down is a different and a more useful process that typing it out.  Also, I asked him to keep it in his desk or other accessible place so he can revisit it from time to time.

Once he did that, I asked him to now look back into his work history and do the following:

Step 2 –  Review at least three past jobs from the following perspectives:

  • WHAT:  Name the job and the company
  • WHEN:  When and how long did you work there?
  • GIVE IT A GRADE  – A B C D or F

Write these all down and be completely honest with yourself.  This should inform your future by examining what worked in the past and what did not. This perspective may help you shape your future self in your next role/career.

Step 3 –  Review Strengths and Weaknesses

  1. Think about your strengths (about 3-5) – IMPORTANT – This one is a bit different from what we usually think about strengths.  These are not necessarily what you are skilled at but what gives you energy during and after doing it.  You might not even be very good at it just yet but you love doing it. Write all those things down.
  2. Think about your weaknesses (about 3-5) – that is, things that give you less energy or you get bored doing and avoid or put off.  Ironically, you may be good at some of these things.

For instance, I am pretty good at networking but it is not something I enjoy.  I skew towards introvert so it is work for me to go to networking events and/or ask people to introduce me to others.  I am usually tired afterward and rarely look forward to them but know they are important to do.  However, when I do talk with new folks, I really enjoy learning about them and what they do.  If I find I can help them in some way, I am eager to do that as well.  Even better, if I can get a lead, contact or idea from the interaction.

Step 4 – Create a Mind Map

This one can be fun as it is all about you and there are no wrong answers.  Here is what you can do:

  1. For 10 mins, write down on Post-it Notes everything that comes to mind related to your business idea. –  use a timer.  It is important to write down each idea on a separate Post-it note.  You will find out shortly why that is. Go the full 10 minutes and know that you may have moments where you can think of nothing. Stick with it as you will also have moments where you cannot write things down fast enough.  Invest the 10 minutes. It should prove worth it.
  2. Organize the Post-its into groups where the individual items are connected around a similar theme – It is okay to add other ideas later as they come to you. It is also okay to have huge gaps as you will fill those in later as you notice them.  Do this on a large wall or some space where you can see all of the Post-it Notes in one area.
  3. Once you feel like you have sorted them into groups you can work with, determine first 2-3 groups to work on first. You may have many groups and some orphans.  Do not worry about and definitely keep the orphans.  They may have value later.

Now that this is done, put these items aside. We will come back to them later

Step 5(a)  – Create One Sentence that describes your business idea that meets the 3Cs – crisp, clear and compelling.

We are not going to start off with one sentence as that can be daunting so we will start on a slightly larger scale.

  1. Start with one page – 400-500 words that describe the idea. Write down everything that comes into your head and try to keep it to one page and no more than 20 minutes to start.  Let that sit for a few hours or a few days if you would like.
  2. Now that it has marinated a bit, turn that into one paragraph.  Let that sit for a few hours or a few days if you would like.
  3. Now let’s turn that into one sentence. Make sure it is crisp, clear and compelling.  Once you have it in a place that you think it is ready to go, run it by one or two people that are not familiar with what you are doing to make sure they understand it.  You may want to have it follow the classical guidelines of What (it is), Who (it is for) and What (problem(s)) it solves.

For instance, here is my one sentence:  Catalyst Growth Advisors teaches mid-market CEOs and leadership teams to build and support a scaling and thriving business and culture – making them the exception.

Now here comes the fun part.  Remember that your idea is just that – an idea. Do not get too emotionally connected to it at this point as it may not survive these conversations but that is okay.  Your goal is to build a business that matters to you AND your customers – not one or the other but both!

Step 5 (b) – Share your one sentence with at least 10 people to get their immediate feedback.

  • Do not elaborate unless they ask. (2-3 should be strangers)
  • Listen, dig deeper, pay attention to more than words.  Write down everything you hear as you never know what you may be useful later when you review your notes.

Take what you learn and update your Mind Map and One Sentence if necessary. Based upon the feedback, if your One Sentence has changed in a meaningful way, repeat Step 5(a + b).

I know you are eager to DO something but remember things may have changed with this feedback.  By the way, you are DOING something.  You have done and are doing what most entrepreneurs never do and most of them fail. Different sounds like a better approach to me based upon history.

If you think you are on to something, start looking deeper into your top 2-3 items from your Mind Map.

This process should take a few days at least.  It will more likely take a few weeks.

N.B.  Many entrepreneurs want to keep their idea a secret.   Unless you have come up with something where secrecy is warranted your risk is minimal.  Most you tell are focused on themselves and will not execute this idea as well as you since this is your passion, not theirs.

Pat Flynn gives a better explanation in his book if you want to look into this further.

Remember, at this point there is nothing very tangible about your idea yet.  That comes next.  Sounds like a great idea for my next post!

Good luck.

Be Exceptional!

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