As a business advisor, I have too often seen technical entrepreneurs get a product or service off the ground with ease, but then struggle mightily when their business reaches a couple of million in annual sales, or the employee count grows beyond a handful. It’s at this stage that the job changes from creative and tactical to managerial and strategic. Many don’t survive the change.
In fact, I believe the majority of true entrepreneurs are not interested in this new role and jump ship quickly by hiring an experienced CEO or merging with another company, to start their next entrepreneurial effort. For example, entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson has started or grown over 400 companies, from record labels to space travel, so for him, the joy is clearly in the startup.
Bill Gates, on the other hand, spent most of his career building Microsoft to a multi-billion dollar company, so he made the transition from startup to growth company. Both he and Branson are billionaires, so there is no one right way for entrepreneurs to succeed. Management of a growing company is a learnable skill, and in my view, it starts with a focus on the following key principles:
- Management is getting results through people and processes. That means your primary responsibly changes from building a solution, to building processes and directing other people. Effective communication is the key, both written and verbal since the plan can’t exist just in your head. Everyone needs to know what they are responsible for.
- Strategic planning takes priority over tactical planning. True entrepreneurs love tactical and problem-solving challenges. Good managers are more interested in anticipating and preventing problems. That means making sure the right people are hired, trained, and in the right place at the right time. Spend more time on the future than today.
- Focus on volume growth and repeatability. With a startup, everything is an experiment. Now the experiments are over, and high productivity is the objective. Creativity and innovation are applied to increasing output and lowering costs rather than solution design and building a viable business model.
- Implement metrics and set objectives for every organization. You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Processes and organizations that have no objectives will produce less and less over time as they attempt to remove risk and potential problems. Every process needs a feedback mechanism to ensure continuous improvement.
- Practice leadership by example beyond your business entity. This requires spending visible influencer time on external initiatives and building relationships in your industry and your community. This is also the time for business development focus, related social causes, and exploring common ground (coopetition initiatives) with competitors.
- Spend real time on people development and succession planning. Long-term success requires planning for leader development in every organization, rotation of high-potential employees through key roles, and support for outside executive education programs. Growing the company means growing people through mentoring and training.
- Balance your own life for the long haul. The startup process is a sprint, and entrepreneurs tend to focus on it like there is an end in sight, forgoing personal relationships, healthy time off, and planning for retirement. Good executives and managers maintain a more balanced perspective and plan for vacations and family.
Moving from startup mode to a sustainable business requires an overt effort on the part of an entrepreneur – it doesn’t happen automatically. The alternative is to lose the business or get pushed out by investors or the Board of Directors, after a painful crisis or business growth failure.
Great entrepreneurs actually have much in common with great managers, including a focus on results and a focus on execution. In addition, the best of both groups maintain a focus on customers, love to learn new things, and are always thinking. Anyone who can put all these attributes to work can survive and prosper in any environment. Just decide where you want to fit and go for it.