Published by CPA Canada in CareerVision
The word “entrepreneurial” is often associated with a freewheeling, for sale zig-zagging, devil-may-care, caution-into-the-wind type of attitude. Although it’s true that the ideas and new ways of doing things that are typically associated with startup companies require some creative thought, this is not all that’s needed. In fact, one of the things that is surprising about young companies is just how much discipline they need in order to be successful.
Startups are focused on building: new companies, new products and services, new markets, new ways of doing things. Like any construction project, this is best done by building on solid ground, starting with the site, a good foundation, and using tactics that are tried and true. Although this particular house might include some new features or ideas (think geothermal heating or windows that provide privacy with the flick of a switch!), most construction fundamentals still need to be in place. Why is this the case? Simply because it’s important to put evolution into practice within a stable environment, as combining too many new things at once can cause the structure to come tumbling down.
This type of balanced progress (or evolution under control) resonates well with early stage investors, as it raises the likelihood of overall success. It also serves as a means to manage and mitigate risk, which is something that we have already explored in this series. Understanding that the sound business practices and discipline that are learned in the corporate world shouldn’t be abandoned; but, rather, leveraged and built upon, is a key area of opportunity for anyone entering a startup company.
Why it Matters
When something is young; be it a child, a puppy, or a company, it needs more structure, not less. Think about the last time you learned how to do something: in order to understand the task, your role, and the implications of doing it right (or wrong!), it was necessary to pay careful attention to the lesson, understand what needed to be done (and how), practice, and perhaps take corrective action (or refer back to the manual) in order to get it right. Startup companies really aren’t much different than these examples.
What runs against the grain of what early stage investors know to be true is when young companies do the opposite (remember that devil-may-care attitude?), applying good business practices just about nowhere. If the intent to is make a new way of doing things work for the long term, it has to be supported by the fundamentals; business planning, financial management, implementation monitoring, and defined roles and responsibilities are just a few examples of the discipline that should be in place. In many startup companies, an investor would be challenged to find any of these practices!
Benefit from the established fundamental business practices that are typically present in large companies by learning how to incorporate them with discipline into a startup environment:
- Dust off that textbook: Although it might have been a while since you’ve held the student viewpoint, recognize what is part of good, old fashioned fundamental business practices and undertake the discipline to learn how to put (and keep) them in place. Areas to think and learn about include planning, budgeting, assigning tasks, monitoring performance, documentation, and roles and responsibilities.
- Practice recognizing where business fundamentals can be applied: Regardless of the environment, there is a place for good business practices. Learn how to transfer what you have observed and worked with in a corporate environment to that of a startup business. Resist the temptation to fall into the “it can’t be done” trap; experienced investors know that it can be done.
- Learn more about what you don’t know: While in the relative stability of an established organization, take the time to learn more about areas with which you are less familiar. Research, courses, and new job responsibilities are all strategies for learning.
- Test your ability to perform on a disciplined basis: What sounds simple “on paper” is typically much more of a challenge when it’s put into practice. Pursue opportunities to take learning to a practical level and be sure to take note of how performance could be improved.
- Think in both the short and long term: Short term thinking tends to equate with getting things done, while a long term mindset is more about putting policies and procedures into place. Recognize that investors expect to see both: the track record of what has been achieved and established practices in a business to demonstrate discipline and ongoing value.
When you take the time to think about a startup company in the context of other things that are early in their developmental stage, it is blatantly obvious that much structure and attention are needed in order to shepherd a neophyte safely into the future. By separating the creative process of generating ideas from the disciplined approach of building, it’s possible to fully recognize the stark differences between the two. This is what early stage investors see every time.