Overcoming The Founder's Trap

Business owners who are unable to extricate themselves from the day to day operations of their companies are actively killing their own growth. Here's how to avoid the founder's trap.

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Confession: I am at a personal point of crisis. I have just sold a majority stake in the business I have spent the past decade of my professional life building. As a growth entrepreneur, I have decided to focus my next decade on building a business that is not only scalable and rich with upside but also one that will impact the lives of my countrymen. 

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I have decided to get out of the cigar-smoked filled boardroom and into the narrow streets of the common man. 

So, I am back at the early stages again: Working 16 hour days. Sleeping just enough for the body to rest so that I am recharged and ready for the next day. Building the team around me so that we can manage the destination for which we are headed and its gruelling demands. This stuff is hard. 

 

Learning to let go

The hardest part of the growth process is learning to let go. Do it too soon and you set your people up to fail. Leave it too late and you will lose good people and keep the mediocre ones who take comfort in your autocratic style. Timing and talent must meet at the intersection perfectly. This is commonly known as the Founder’s Trap. 

My antidote to this trap has been to focus on the component parts of the journey that I can manage and control. These are my four main frame-setting techniques: 

1. Hire right first time 

Almost all growth businesses have the challenge of growth: Costs outstrip revenues throughout the growth curve. Why is Uber — the world’s foremost taxi app — still raising funding? Why would a global business with operations in 59 countries still need cash from funders? Simple. Growth is expensive. 

So, the tendency of many growth entrepreneurs — in markets where the alternative asset classes like VC are not yet well developed — is to stretch their runway by lowering the cost headcount. Hire fewer, less competent people and pay them less. Fill the office with warm, not the best, bodies. Then micro-manage those people to achieve above their competence. 

Over the past decade building and investing in businesses, I have never seen this work. 

When you hire the right people, they will cost more but they will also elevate the level of business performance and challenge you to look at and see through your own weaknesses. 

2. Give freedom (within a framework) 

If you were the manager of Real Madrid or Barca, would you want to tell Messi or Ronaldo how they should score? No. Your job is to put the right tactics in place that affords them the maximum opportunities to score. 

So often as entrepreneurs we hire a Ronaldo or Messi and then treat them like youth players in the Amazulu FC development squad. Top talent will always leave when you do this. 

My experience has taught me that you need to give freedom within a framework. Tell them what the destination is, when you want to get there and how you prefer to get there but then set them loose to pilot the plane. Make the framework clear and allow them to navigate. 

3. Set clear, unambiguous but difficult goals 

I am spending a lot of time in meetings. Internal and external. External is important and easy to explain. Part of my role in the firm is to build the future of the firm through relationships, stakeholder engagement and rapport. 

Internally though, my role and function is a lot more nuanced. I am having to ensure that my team is still clear on where we are headed (direction/orientation), why we are headed there (purpose), and what we need and by when we must arrive (strategy). 

A lot of time is spent ensuring that this is clear and crystalised for the team so that they can get on with rowing us to the destination. 

4. Be relentless on accountability

All three of the above points rest on the foundation of a culture of accountability. If your people are not held accountable for their results and forced to own their performance, you find yourself always micro-managing them by task, rather than an outcome. With accountability, you must be unrelenting in your performance standards and expectations. 

If you are over two years into your business and finding yourself still working at dawn, doing the same tasks and dealing with similar issues, you are caught in the Founder’s Trap.

Vusi Thembekwayo

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Mr. Vusi Thembekwayo has been an Independent Non-Executive Director of at RBA Holdings Ltd. since May 14, 2013. Mr. Thembekwayo has already collected numerous accolades and awards as businessperson, entrepreneur and international public speaker. Mr. Thembekwayo completed a PDBA and a course on advanced valuation techniques with the Gordon Institute of Business Science and completed a Management Acceleration Programme (Cum Laude) with the Wits Business School. His speaking achievements include the international hit talk “The Black Sheep” which he delivered to the Top 40 CEOs in Southern Africa, addressing the Australian Houses of Parliament and speaking at the British House of Commons. To add to this, Vusi speaks in 4 of the 7 continents over 350 000 people each year.