What First-Time Presidents and Entrepreneurs Have in Common
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Many criticisms have been directed toward President Donald Trump, most notably his lack of political experience. Of course, the former real estate mogul boasted that his dearth of political know-how is a good thing, leaving him untainted by Washington, D.C.’s corruption and uniquely poised to shake things up.
Only time will tell if the newly inaugurated president will live up to his promises, a feeling many startup founders can empathize with. New politicians and novice business owners don't share much common ground, but they can agree on one thing -- their big ideas need high-level execution in order for each person's respective vision to be realized.
Startup founders and first-time presidents share a lot of similarities. Both are ambitious and hopeful, but uncertain of whether they’ll achieve their goals.
That inexperience can actually be a strength. When people operate solely on past knowledge, they’re unlikely to enact substantial change. Conversely, first-timers are willing to take risks, which is a prerequisite for creating disruptive innovations.
Trump has argued that his business acumen compensates for his sparse political résumé, and he may be right. Business leaders who’ve been through cycles of success and failure understand the importance of learning and adaptation.
Presidents and entrepreneurs also face similar transitions once they’ve won office or landed major investment deals. A president’s language is no longer necessarily about persuading people to back him, either democratically or financially -- now he must deliver.
Avoid leadership pitfalls
Landing a big investor or becoming the leader of the free world can give even the most grounded person a big head. When entrepreneurs let their egos cloud their business sense, their companies fail -- the same goes for countries.
I’ve seen brilliant founders tripped up by their pride. They’re so convinced of their infallibility that they miss important market cues. Often, they’re denied funding because they ignored that other companies popped up with ideas similar to theirs and didn’t effectively differentiate.
Reputation is critical in business and politics; no matter where you are in the world, the startup and venture capitalist ecosystem is very small. Negative notoriety can be extremely damaging in that type of environment, just as a pugnacious or antagonistic attitude from a political leader may taint diplomatic relations around the world.
New leaders can use the following strategies to drive innovation and maintain their credibility:
1. Be willing to move.
Throughout the campaign, Trump never shied away from shifting course when he deemed it necessary. Agility is a startup’s most important asset, particularly in early-stage launches. This is where inexperience proves useful, as less seasoned teams are more willing to try new strategies and adapt quickly based on market feedback. More established players are often stymied by red tape and bureaucracy.
A CB Insights study states that 7 percent of young companies stumble because they fail to pivot. While a commitment to your vision is admirable, don't dig so deeply into it that you're unable or unwilling to move if the opportunity arises. Listen to the market, and be willing to travel along with it.
2. Pursue the big idea.
When Trump announced his candidacy, no one thought he would win. He was a dark horse from day one, but he never faltered in his confidence. Entrepreneurs can learn from this mentality.
Even when the odds of success are slim, shoot for global success. Practical, incremental thinking doesn’t inspire movements or make people want to run out and buy products.
Develop big, grand visions, and then follow through on them. Formfitting pantyhose might have seemed ridiculous to some, but Spanx founder Sara Blakely believed in it enough to take the plunge. She and her company are now worth more than $1 billion.
Ignore criticisms or jests from people who don’t believe in the company -- those are simply distractions.
3. Remember to stay grounded.
The way a president campaigns is different from the way he leads, and the same can be said for an entrepreneur. After one has closed a fundraising round, he tends to project more measured numbers as he shifts to an execution mindset.
Practicality is key when devising an execution plan. Amazing pitches don’t change the world, but amazing products do, so be realistic about the process and timeline for product development, and communicate those plans to investors.
But remember that being realistic doesn’t mean being less ambitious. When we founded our startup, I had companies such as IBM, Salesforce and Adobe in my sights as future competitors.
I knew it would take years until we had them on the ropes, but that didn’t shake our confidence. Our advantage is our agility and ability to innovate, and we focused on building our strengths instead of bringing our dreams back down to earth.
4. Look across the aisle.
Startups must come out hard against their competitors during fundraising pitches, making clear cases for why their products are superior. Post-fundraising, however, they should be seeking strategic partnerships with their peers. Look for ways to carve out market share by leveraging relationships with competitors.
Bipartisanship is a common practice in politics, at least theoretically. President Trump remained critical of the Affordable Care Act (and Democrats who said they’d fight to preserve the law), but he also called for bipartisan cooperation on a replacement bill. Doing so distances him from former President Barack Obama’s legacy, but it also creates an opportunity to make progress on a contentious policy issue, which would be a boost for his own reputation.
5. Strive to stand out.
Forming strategic relationships with competitors is not the same as easing up on innovation. Startups, especially those in early funding stages, need to make themselves visible to bigger players and investment firms, which means they really need to become market outliers.
Aggressive differentiation strategies attract attention, as Trump proved in his campaign. His high-profile antics unsettled some of his more traditional opponents, and some ended up backing him after he derailed their presidential bids. Many people were put off by Trump’s showmanship and headline-grabbing moves, but those gave him an edge -- even in a crowded field.
This happens in business all the time. Just look at Amazon. Who would have ever thought that an ecommerce retail platform would overtake IBM in the cloud and infrastructure business?
First-time presidents and entrepreneurs benefit from being the new kids in town. Everyone is curious about what they’ll do, and they have the freedom to shape their legacies around bold, innovative initiatives. By combining the ambition of their fundraising pitches with thoughtful decisions about their futures, entrepreneurs (and presidents) can lead with greatness. They just need to learn fast at work, adapt and know their time is limited to prove quantifiable success.