I spoke with an entrepreneur whose company is building a new, disruptive product for the education sector. One of the challenges he’s facing is that none of the company’s co-founders have worked in the education sector before. He wondered if he should hire someone with some relevant experience.
Another entrepreneur friend of mine is building a tool that is catered to the public sector. The company is struggling to scale as a business. The sales process is too slow. The product is becoming too specific for one sector.
In both cases when these entrepreneurs asked for my advice, I told them: Don’t be a parasite if you want to be a disruptor.
There are so many verticals out there that still have not been fully transformed by the Internet — education, public sector, book publishing, the list goes one. But it’s extremely hard to transform any industry if you have a lot of dependencies with the old systems. You can’t think out of the box. Your sales cycle is too long. And often you end up with a product or a service that is incremental at best rather than revolutionary.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, a lot of people have built great businesses by providing incremental solutions like consulting services to the government. But, if you want to build something truly transformative and net-native, then you have to stay as far away from the traditional systems as possible and draw closer to your end users or customers.
If you want to create something truly game-changing and be a disruptor, you can’t begin the journey as a parasite.
Both my parents used to work for a bank. For them, the work day started at nine in the morning and ended at 5:00 pm sharp. Day in and day out, this was their routine. They never understood the concept of flexible hours. They questioned why I would bring “work” home. On the other hand, they were always amused that I never needed to take time off work to see the doctor or get the car fixed during office hours.
“Am I expected to work an 8-hour day?” I get this question from employees from time to time, but I believe this is the wrong question to ask. Employees are expected to get their work done, deliver on OKRs and contribute to a positive workplace culture. For the most part, I don’t (and neither should their direct manager) care where or how the work gets done. Of course, it goes without saying (but I’ll still say it), flexible work hours should never impact collaboration or attendance at critical meetings.
Startups are fast-paced, ever-changing environments filled with bright employees. They’re solving complex and fascinating problems and it’s all very exciting. Being a disruptor and part of a paradigm shift is thrilling and the work itself should compel employees to give 100%. Offering flexible hours instills trust in your team and gives employees a sense of ownership to execute on projects in the way that works for them.
That’s not to say there will be no instances when burning the midnight oil for a specific project or tight deadline is required. Make no mistake, there will be times when a critical security issue needs to be addressed after-hours or a client has an urgent need on the weekend. But there should also be opportunities to take it easy and spend a few weeks out of the country or deal with a family or health issue. It’s about flexibility.
Most startups offer flexible hours, and it makes sense. After all, tech is a creative industry unlike working at a bank or factory. As people head back to work after their relaxing summer vacations, my advice to founders and startup execs? Measure productivity by outcomes and results, not timecards.
Years ago, a summer job gave me one of the most valuable lessons in entrepreneurship.
I needed tuition money for university so I got a job at a factory printing t-shirts. I witnessed firsthand how the owner juggled multiple and often diverse tasks in order to operate a successful business. Looking back, I was naive to think that a t-shirt printing company was just about printing t-shirts.
If you look at the journey of an entrepreneur, it all starts with an idea. But an idea is just that – a thought. Without execution, an idea is as good as yesterday’s newspaper. Only when execution follows an idea, can you determine if there’s product-market fit. If you achieve product-market fit – congratulations, that’s a major accomplishment! You can start a company to further iterate on the idea and cement your place in the market. But once you start a company, you have to turn it into a business.
I’ve personally gone through this journey three times. My first business failed, I sold the second one, and the third has become one of Canada’s most successful startups. My experiences failing and succeeding as an entrepreneur reinforced the lesson I learned that summer many years ago: As an entrepreneur, the best product you can build is yourself.
You will wear many hats throughout the entrepreneur journey. As your company grows, you play different roles in the company and you can expect to change ‘jobs’ every few months. Each new job requires a different skill set. You may start as the product designer, but soon you’ll lead a team as a manager, and then eventually you transition into a leadership role. I have yet to meet a single person who, at the launch of their company, has every required skill. So welcome continuous learning and crave self-improvement.
Taking the time to build yourself as a well-rounded entrepreneur will pay dividends.