This is a common refrain at startups.
partnership comes together
new product feature gets completed
team member joins
we’ll be good.
The challenge is there is not one thing that makes a startup, new product, or any kind of new initiative successful. There is only the next “if this happens, we’ll be good” to keep them going. It is a series of “next one things” that compound over time. Putting too much pressure on any single thing being “the thing” can be frustrating and disappointing because most things don’t happen and even the ones that do, don’t provide the return and impact we build them up to have without several other things happening in concert.
Startup teams are better off looking at and executing against a continuum of things that have contingency plans and redirects built-in.
A startup’s product has a roadmap that gets adjusted as more information and validation of the right direction for the product becomes known. A product roadmap gets informed through customer feedback, outcomes desired by the company, investors, partners, competitors, and more. A similar roadmap has to be in place for a company as a whole. I’m not referring to a business plan that becomes dated as soon as it is created and I’m not referring to a business model canvas that has a very short useful life. What I’m referring to is a strategic roadmap for a company that highlights a company’s key strategic areas, scenario planning, dependencies/risks, and decision points. Think about this way, a company is a product. A company has inputs, outcomes, risks, dependencies just like a product does that need to be captured, documented, assessed, and planned for.
We experience this and see it happen every day with our startup clients. Our startup clients are not only working against and managing a product roadmap. They are also working against and managing a company roadmap. A company roadmap has to include things like funding, team makeup, marketing strategies and activities, customer feedback, industry changes, and more. Each of these areas has levers that, depending on how the area is progressing and what roadblocks are presented at any given time, need to get pulled. Sometimes many levers have to get pulled in multiple areas at the same time. This can feel like managed or unmanaged chaos depending on how well the company roadmap has been built out. Pulling known and expected levers should be executed within a company’s roadmap. Pulling unexpected levers means the company’s roadmap was not thoughtful or comprehensive enough. There will always be unknowns and surprises, and even some of the “if this happens, we’ll be good” will bring their share of surprises. A company that is resilient and has agency mitigates surprises and can better deal with surprises when they happen because of the time invested in the company’s roadmap.
We work across the spectrum of startups to enterprises at AWH helping clients to build great digital products and to solve data challenges. Although we see the “if this happens, we’ll be good” refrain more at startup clients than enterprise ones, we see it across the board. At enterprises, it takes the form of more internal stakeholders than external ones which is both sad and the reality. For enterprises, the “if this happens, we’ll be good” looks more like:
IT agrees to support it
Finance gives us budget
The CMO gets behind it
we’ll be good.
These internal approvals or stage gates, as they are often referred to at big companies (I know, yuck), provide the same sense of victory that a startup’s “if this happens” do. A product and company are successful because of a series of activities and events. The teams that understand that each activity and event is a rung on a ladder and that very few events and activities have the power to make or break the ladder is important. The “if this happens, we’ll be good” refrain needs to evolve to become “if this doesn’t happen, how will we move forward and continue to make progress to achieve the ultimate outcome(s).”
A team and company have resiliency and agency not based on what goes well but based upon what doesn’t and the ability to adapt and to keep making positive progress. The “if this happens, we’ll be good” mentality detracts from a company having agency, resiliency, and being great executors because it establishes a mindset and culture of specific acts and moments in time being the difference between success and failure. There are certain things that happen that are more consequential than others, but most product and company successes come from doing a lot of things well over time, not lightning strikes. Hit a lot of singles and doubles to ensure success and take the occasional home run when it happens.
So as you think about your product and company, put yourself in a position to have some of the home runs happens while executing furiously every day for a product and company that gives you a chance to succeed if all you do is keep hitting singles and doubles.
-Ryan Frederick, Principal at AWH, Author The Founders Manual: A Guidebook for Becoming a Successful Entrepreneur.