All of the successes were from bringing in good people, helping them frame problems and getting them the tools they needed to be successful. The failures? They were mine – mostly due to not properly resourcing a problem with the right people, or having the right people but without the right tools for them to win.
Leadership requires aligning the right people around an activity. I was fortunate to have good mentors, good colleagues and good customers. Big leaps happened with the right people in place with the right tools. Stagnant periods without progress (the real killer of startups) happened in the absence of the right people, or when the team didn’t have essential tools.
A mentor recruited me into the company – but then left. I filled his role, and then took on the group CEO role. His advice was extremely valuable. Dave Neal was a long time mentor and his partner Chris Heivly became a trusted advisor. Advising other startups earlier in their entrepreneurial journey can be cathartic and clarifying. Hap Klopp changed my whole view of working with apparel and commercializing industrial technologies. An under achieving startup can acquire a lot of emotional debt and tension as it struggles to find product-market fit. Combine this with culture gaps between production (Eastern Europe), sales and technology (US and Western Europe), and a global customer set (US, S. America, China, India, Russia – all over) and it can be hard to get a feel for what is really happening.
Mentors let you have an audience to talk about and try on ideas. They can provide the, “that’s dumb” feedback that is needed sometimes – and keep you focused on what delivers for your customers. The mentor also can be sure that your corporate role is in line with your personal goals.
Complex problems can require broad teams to get the needed skill sets around the issue. Electrospinning is complex. Manufacturing is complex. The end industries are complex. Combined – it can be overwhelming. We were fortunate to have exceptionally bright minds with top academic pedigrees. The team was young, but it was committed and creative. Having the right colleagues and creating the right dialog is crucial to success.
Taking on a leadership role can quickly change team dynamics. An open dialog helps create success, but this can be hard to maintain. Fostering positive feedback loops that help customers win is important. Ego, arrogance and pride can stop the kinds of change that startups must embrace.
Steve Blank’s definition of a startup as a business in search of a customer is dead right. Good customers are invaluable. Finding profitable learning scenarios accelerates commercialization. Creating open, positive feedback loops is essential. Elmarco has some amazing customers – and the diversity and skillsets of the team made it possible to forge deep and lasting relationships that created fast learning for Buyer and Seller.
As the tenth person to have ‘CEO’ in my title – I treated the investor group as a customer. As a hired (as opposed to founding CEO) I had an obligation to present reality as the management team understood it, to them – even if it was at odds with their beliefs, or what they had been told in the past.
If good people are a key to leadership – then the ability to recruit is essential. Knowing how to frame the problem, the role needed to solve it, and to use that to attract people is essential. Frame the problem poorly and no one will join – or you will get the wrong people on board.
The right person, the right conversation and the right insight can change perspective dramatically. A big network leads to broad recruiting. Good recruits can create success out of very difficult situations.