If I’d Only Known Then… A Boomer’s Millennial Pep Talk

 

A version of this article previously appeared in Forbes.

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“Point of view is worth 80 IQ points.”

Alan Curtis Kay, Personal Computer Pioneer

I recently was asked to speak at an all-hands meeting at one of my portfolio companies, Earnest Research. I always enjoy such opportunities, as it allows me to share my point of view as a startup veteran with millennials on the front-end of their careers.

When I was running my startups, I seldom took time away from nailing my daily To Do’s to objectively evaluate my team’s progress. Thus, as a serial offender of entrepreneurial myopia, I appreciate the perspective an experienced outsider can share regarding a venture’s true status.

If I’d Only Known Then…

By all startup measures, Earnest is a top performer. The company’s revenue per employee is nearly three times better than the average for companies of a comparable size and their growth rate is accelerating.

In speaking with Earnests’ high-achieving employees, my hope was to convey the perspective of an outsider and counteract the tendency for heads-down employees to develop an insular mindset.

I also wanted to communicate that, for many of the employees, Earnest will be a cornerstone of their careers. It is often difficult to assess a situation as special while you are in the midst of it. Thus, I wanted to reinforce the realty that we are building a company they’ll be proud to say they helped create for decades to come.

Before my talk, I shared my objectives with Kevin Carson, Earnest’s Founder & CEO. Kevin then provided me with a clear roadmap, telling me that, “The team is excited to hear from someone with an experienced point of view that can provide them with a broader perspective. For most of us, this the first startup we have worked at. Thus, it's easy to get mired in the day-to-day grind of building a company and lose sight of the accomplishments we are knocking down, especially when you have no comparable experiences.”

With this in mind, I addressed the following issues during my talk:

Problem Search & Destroy – Successful startup warriors are good at identifying problems and anticipating potential obstacles. Their world is comprised of overcoming challenges, which causes them to naturally focus on what’s not working, rather than appreciating what is going well.

FIX: Remind your team what is going RIGHT and congratulate them regarding the past challenges they have overcome.

Kitchen Effect – When you work in a restaurant, you see all the kitchen mishaps: food falling on the floor, servings sitting under heat lamps too long, etc. In many cases, such workers won’t eat at their own restaurants. Yet, to the patrons in the clean, calm dining room, the food looks and tastes great because they have a very different point of view from the harried kitchen and wait staff.

FIX: View your company through the eyes of an outsider - a vendor, customer or other dispassionate third party. Share these perspectives with your team so they can evaluate the quality of the company’s solutions without considering the machinations required to get them to market.

Molasses – Nothing happens fast enough at a startup. Despite the best planning, it is often difficult to achieve deadlines, due to resource constraints and unforeseen challenges. In the midst of the daily slog of my startups, I always felt like we were running through a field of waist-deep molasses. However, when I took the time to assess our growth via objective measures, I realized how quickly we actually were progressing.

FIX: Periodically review your month-over-month and annual growth metrics and compare them to other companies (including your competitors) when they were at a similar stage in their maturation.

ModulationStartups are emotional rollercoasters. The highs feel higher and the lows feel lower, compared to the relative stability of a larger organization.

FIX: Judiciously remind your team that when things are going great, they shouldn’t believe they’re that good and when exogenous events negatively impact the business, they shouldn’t feel they have failed.

Culture Curation – It is difficult for a company to achieve a healthy culture and simultaneous high growth. Collegial cultures that perform sub-optimally and unhealthy cultures that generate solid results are sadly more common.

FIX: Instill the principle that everyone must curate the company’s culture. Great cultures do not happen accidentally, so encourage your employees to be mindful that their attitudes and actions contribute to the company’s ethos.

Reflect & Appreciate – Most entrepreneurs are lucky enough to join an exceptional venture once or twice in their lives. It’s hard to relish the experience when you’re in the middle of it – much like an athlete or musician who can only appreciate their success in hindsight.

FIX: Invite experienced outsiders to company meetings so they can share their objective and motivational feedback, while emphasizing that exceptional startups are truly exceptional.

After my talk I caucused with Kevin, looking for constructive criticism. Kevin noted that, “I cannot overemphasize the positive impact of exposing my team to fresh, seasoned perspectives. Every time we do it, it’s like resetting the company’s mood meter.”

You can follow John on Twitter: @johngreathouse

Image credit: Courtesy Of Earnest Research

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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