Applying What I Learned in Corporate Finance Improved My Startup's Culture
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Growing up with an entrepreneur father, I always felt conditioned to build my own company. But entrepreneurs, whether born or bred, know you have to lay the groundwork and learn to lead through more than just dinner table conversations. You have to learn to lead through experience. I did that by working my way up through the ranks at Union Bank, a multi-billion dollar financial institution, and learned firsthand what it would take to effectively run an organization.
Despite that hands-on training, there was a steep learning curve when I set out on my own. One thing was certain. In order to be successful with my first venture, a real estate crowdfunding platform, I would need to apply some of the leadership and management lessons I learned in corporate finance.
The first rule is simple: always over-communicate. If, for example, you work on massive risk and wealth management teams that span the country, you have no choice but to over-communicate. The same is true in any global corporation. It’s a constant challenge to get everyone to point in the same direction. You can’t afford to cut corners when it comes to organizational communication.
You also shouldn’t cut corners coordinating a startup team. I’ve had one goal from the beginning: to be able to walk up to any member of our team and ask that individual to describe our vision and mission. It isn’t some kind of pass-fail pop quiz a team should fear. Rather, it’s an effective way to stay one step ahead of the communication problems that often plague big organizations. In the past three months, we’ve grown from a team of six to 30. If a still small team can excel at communication, you’ll have a better chance of keeping that as you scale for continued growth.
There’s another related strategy that serves some startup founders well: write a CEO bulletin, no matter the size of your team. In corporate finance, company wide bulletins are the norm. Organizations of thousands of people require that everyone hear the same basic messages from the core leadership team. Why should it work differently for a team of fewer than 100? In small teams, we all need—we all have—to be on the same page. Developing effective communication habits is just one way a CEO can put her arms around these problems before they become unmanageable and erode the company culture you’re trying so hard to build.
If you make the jump to a startup, one thing you shouldn’t leave behind in corporate finance is a basic dress code. Even though my company, Realty Mogul, is a startup and we deliver our product over the Internet, we don’t wear shorts, flip-flops, or tees to work. Who cares whether you wear jeans and a dress shirt, right?
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Well, we do, because we want to demonstrate our professionalism. We work with high net-worth investors who trust us with large sums of money. Despite the fact that we’re a young business, we’re a leader in the real estate crowdfunding space. When investors sign on to work with us, we want to convey as often as possible the importance of gaining and maintaining their trust. Dressing for success isn’t just about how your attire—like a power suit—makes you feel. It’s about demonstrating respect for your business and your clients—every single one of them, no matter a client’s perceived worth or wealth.
Professional attire has another added benefit: cultivating a culture of ultra-preparedness. Respecting a client’s time—being punctual and prepared—is just one facet of professionalism. In wealth management, you know everything about a client before either of you walks into the room. What charities does a couple contribute to? What’s his political affiliation? What does her spouse do for a living? Dressing to convey professional respect should be an essential part of preparing a dossier and just as important as arriving for a meeting on time—if not early.
In corporate finance, professionals excel at over-preparing and over-communicating. It’s an effective strategy for success, and one many startup founders can apply when establishing workplace culture. There’s a time and place for workplace fun, and startups are meant to be experimental environments where creativity thrives. But if you want to aggressively scale your company by building a committed team, you’ll also be glad you laid the groundwork with professional values. As you gain momentum and expand your team, values like over-communicating and over-preparing will be critical to your company’s continued success.
Related: Building Client Relationships