Stop Being the Hero If You Want Your Startup to Succeed
Early founders understand what it means to perform heroic acts. Re-architecting the product, swooping in to close large deals and being the release manager on your first launches -- hero mode is often the state an early founder is in when they’re strapped for cash and time.
But there’s a point at which these heroics must stop. At some point, a founder needs to scale the team and concentrate on long-term strategy.
If you’re a founder and you’re consistently the fastest, highest-quality contributor to your company’s outcomes on all fronts, you’re in trouble. World-class leaders hire or delegate in order to scale and grow.
Rainforest QA’s Founder and CEO Fred Stevens-Smith learned this lesson the hard way. “At the very earliest stages of Rainforest QA, I was doing just about everything from shipping code, designing the marketing site, updating our sales deck to building our customer success playbook,” said Stevens-Smith. Once he’d raised his seed round, Fred realized that he was actually hurting the company by failing to make key hires and scale the business.
“It took the threat of actual death, OK, company death, to force me to focus on the high level, and I've never looked back,” said Stevens-Smith.
Learn how to prioritize tasks.
Dwight Eisenhower once said, “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.”
As a founder, your job is to design a long-term sustainable vision for your organization. It is not to be everyone’s hero or firefighter, nor is it to build a culture of firefighters. Ask yourself: What percentage of my time is spent on urgent execution versus strategizing for the future? Is it possible that without my intervention, managers and employees would come to sound conclusions? What processes allow me to solve less but still remain informed?
If you’re too busy to see that your constant intervention is a poor use of your time, then you’re not building a scalable company. Your employees and investors are counting on you to facilitate growth.
One way to protect your time is to think about your to-do list in terms of the Eisenhower Decision Matrix:
Urgent & Important: Do Immediately
Not Urgent & Important: Carve Out Time
Urgent & Not Important: Delegate
Not Urgent, Not Important: Stop
Reduce the need for immediate action.
The reality is that there are certain tasks a founder must handle immediately. There will always be deadlines for reporting, legal documents and agreements. Keep track of the tasks that continue to come up over and over again. In the same way that customer service teams build official FAQ pages and canned responses from frequent customer queries, you should find ways to make the most sought-after information readily available.
Carve out time for big picture thinking.
There’s a reason people like Y Combinator’s Paul Graham once advocated for the Maker’s Schedule. Founders at work are inundated by questions from the team hired to execute on specific departmental tasks. The problem with this is that a founder’s job is to think about the long-term growth of a company. This is impossible to do well when you’re constantly context-switching. How are you going to build an enterprise roadmap, org-wide strategic plan or core messaging if you’re always being interrupted? Carve out longer periods of time in your schedule to do the important things that help your team work towards bigger goals. Carve out large half-day and full-day blocks in your week in order to build the groundwork for your next stage of the company.
Learn to delegate.
Letting go of tasks is easy for some but does not come easy for others. According to Gallup, only one in four entrepreneurs have high levels of delegator talent, thus hindering their ability to build teams that can increase company performance. As a founder, you must learn to document your own processes, hire, trust your team and delegate well.
Stop screwing around.
It’s fine to take speculative meetings with potential customers, investors and employees. But there’s a difference between exploring your opportunities and doing unnecessary tasks. Your time is valuable and you owe it to your staff and your investors to use it on the tasks and relationship-building that matters. If something is neither urgent nor important then it’s really not worth doing.