Last year, I had the honor to hold the keynote speech about leadership in a Start-up at the graduation event of my former Executive MBA school, the international institute of management in technology (iimt). Apparently, a lot of people could relate to my thoughts and because of the positive feedback, I would like to share the relevant excerpts with you.
I really struggled for a long time about what to talk to you. I could speak about the company, about our customers or about how great I think is what we do. I could talk about the experiences we made, the ups and downs. Or I could give you tips on financing and other topics. But those insights would be similar to thousands of others and you can read all of them in the Web or in the literature.
So why should you care?
So I decided to talk about leadership topics that rarely anyone talks about. I want to talk about personal feelings, especially when they relate to mistakes and failures. Although all of the topics relate to leadership when founding a company, most of them are still valid for leadership in general.
Personal feelings are in many ways the cornerstone of leadership. We don’t struggle so much with business and technical problems than with emotional ones. And sometimes it just helps to know that we’re not alone. There are many examples of personal feelings that I encountered myself. But as I know that being hungry is one of the worst of all, I will limit it to 3.
Doubt and Uncertainty
There are two types of founders. Those who have no idea if things are going to work out, and those who are lying about it. No one has a crystal ball. But to everyone outside of you, you have to project 100 percent confidence in what you’re doing.
To your customers, to your employees and to your investors. Every single day. There will be signs of progress like acquiring a new customer, but also a steady stream of problems and challenges that need to be solved. It is very hard to deal with this dilemma and the emotions involved.
My advice to you: Don’t think too much about success or failure. Just do what has to be done. As the famous rule by John Cage and Sister Corita Kent says:
Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.
Or to say it in the words of Thomas Edison:
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10‘000 ways that won’t work.
That is the mindset you need. The only way to deal with these emotions is truly believing in what you are doing. This will empower you to take the courage, to persuade and to persevere.
One of the things that can really keep you awake at night is financial stress. Founders are the last to get their paycheck. And it will be much less than you would get being a normal employee. Maybe you have even invested a lot of your own money into the company.
From time to time, you hear about founders with a successful exit that cashed some millions. Even in these few examples you don’t know what was in the period before. What does it mean to your life to not have a steady income? What does it mean to invest everything into a company and having no idea if it will ever come back? The only advice I can give you here: Alway have assets of the last resort. Even if your company is in big financial problems, don’t get tempted to put in your last money. This allows you to stay independent and have a clear head when making hard decisions.
You don’t hear this a lot, but being a founder is a lonely situation. By definition, you don’t have people in your company that are in the same situation. When people go to lunch and blame the management, you can’t blame anyone than yourself. When people can go to their boss to discuss important or hard decisions, you will have to take the ultimate decision for yourself.
Nicolas Hayek once said, every time he wanted to start something new, everybody told him this can’t be done.
Imagine yourself in this situation. When you have investors on board, don’t expect that they are so much interested in your personal feelings. They are dealing with their owns. And they have different interests. That can be truly awful.
The anchor in such a situation is your wife or husband, your girlfriend or boyfriend and your family. Talk to them and listen carefully what they’re saying. Even if they don’t know exactly what you’re doing, they are the only ones that don’t have any business interest in you. They can give you a different perspective with their outside but supportive attitude towards you, because they love you.
Founding and leading can and will be an emotional rollercoaster. These are not topics that people like to share, but they exist. And to be honest – they suck. But on the other hand, they will make you stronger, more balanced and happier. If you accept them, tackle them and work through them. I am not talking about business here, I am talking about life. And I guarantee you, this will be the foundation of your personal leadership, no matter what you do in your professional or private life.