I don’t believe I’ve ever met a small business owner or startup founder who got started in businesses because they were business experts. Most got started because they had experience and connections in an industry, saw a gap in the market, fell in love with the product or service, or simply saw an opportunity to make money.
These are all fine reasons for starting a business, but none of them are indicators that the owner knows how to run a business successfully. The entrepreneurial skillset and knowledge base are vast and typically underestimated. Most do some research on how to get started, and then just start. Nothing wrong with that, and I applaud the courage and decisiveness. This anonymous quote sums it up well, “Confidence is the feeling you get just before you fully comprehend the situation.”
Starting a business is akin to learning just enough to get a shell of an airplane off the ground. Now all we have to do is finish building the plane while we are flying it, keep it aloft, and figure out how to land it without crashing. Starting is the easy part.
Keeping with the aviation theme, our plane will need fuel to keep flying, increase speed and gain altitude. Ask most existing small or startup companies what they need to grow and succeed, and their answer is “money.” In my experience from working with hundreds of small and startup companies, money isn’t usually the first thing on the true list of needs for growth and success. It is true that money can be the rocket fuel that a business needs to accelerate.
However, calling on my NASA history, if the fuel is not mixed and used properly, or if the rocket itself is unstable, it can result in a catastrophic failure. Our plane needs fuel but not until we have a safe, aerodynamic structure with a clear view and controls for speed, altitude, direction and balance.
Once off the ground, the owner, our pilot, will realize that he/she needs help completing the internal structures and systems, avoiding storms and figuring out how to land safely at some point so someone else can take over. Many business owners come to me with a specific self-diagnosed problem. First, typically their self-diagnosis isn’t the core problem, but rather a symptom of a larger issue. Second, they don’t realize that a business, like an airplane, is a system and that a problem in one area of operation can also impact other areas. All the functional areas must be integrated and work together for the business to be sustainable.
So, what do small business owners and startup founders need? Capital may be needed at some point but high-quality technical assistance, mentors and trusted advisors are needed to prepare for capital access and to maximize execution after receiving it.
I’ve always said that entrepreneurship is a full contact sport. Like playing certain sports and being on the battlefield, you can’t learn how to master the responsibilities just by reading about them, taking a class or seeing examples. While those activities are part of the learning process, the only way one masters entrepreneurship is by doing it. Just like the battlefield, all those concepts and examples are fine until the first bullet whizzes by your head.
At that point, training, muscle memory, guiding principles and decision-making processes have to take over. That can only begin to happen after years of on-the-job training with trusted subject matter experts, mentors and advisors.
The best approach, in my opinion, is immersive and holistic and includes, but is not limited to, these learning objectives:
• The language of business – critical for true communication and learning to occur;
• Practical skills such as certain elements of marketing or sales, performing a break-even analysis, reading a financial statement or making a decision;
• How to develop processes, procedures and policies to guide operations;
• How to use and understand systems that make the work more efficient, effective and accurate;
• How to gather and analyze performance data;
• How to make timely, accurate decisions;
• How to hire, train, manage and lead people;
• How to maintain your mental and physical health;
• Delegation — many a company have been lost to the owner’s inability to train and delegate effectively.
For a business owner to be successful, he/she must fully understand what, when, why and how to perform essential tasks in their business. For the service providers who support them, we must not just radio instructions to the pilot from our safe environment on the ground, but be willing to sit in the co-pilot seat and serve as navigator and load master if necessary.
David Moody is a Central Arkansas startup founder/mentor and former NASA engineer.