Working On The Business: Three Ways Startup Founders Can Think Strategically

An important aspect of the JuntoExperience is that leaders are forced to work on their businesses, not just in them. It’s not easy for an entrepreneur to shift from the head down, get-sh*t-done mentality. For growth stage companies with 5-50 employees and increasing revenue, that’s exactly what got them here. The founders kept their noses to the grindstone and worked in the business to gain initial traction and grow sales.

After early growth and adoption comes the challenging shift. To scale and achieve rapid growth, a new mentality must be leveraged by the founders, one of balancing working in the business with working on the business. And that's because what got them "here" won’t get them "there".

Below are three simple concepts that we use in Junto to help facilitate this mindset shift from tactical to strategic thinking:

 

1. STRUCTURED & UNINTERRUPTED TIME AWAY

Getting "out of the building" and changing the environment is an obvious yet important ingredient in working on the business. This time away from the office also must be met with two other characteristics in order to maximize the value of the time. First, the time should be structured, with a set agenda and topic to explore and work on. Second, digital connectivity needs to be limited if not powered off all together. It’s all too easy for a single text message from the office to derail the train of thought, yanking the leader out of strategic thinking and back into the weeds.

The JuntoIII Apprentices experiencing "structured & uninterrupted time away" in the Class on Self-Awareness. 

The JuntoIII Apprentices experiencing "structured & uninterrupted time away" in the Class on Self-Awareness. 

We see this in our JuntoClasses. Every session is a four-hour block of time where the JuntoApprentices are away from their offices. They get to focus specifically on one strategic topic, like operations and metrics or recruiting, hiring and managing. The time is highly structured. Each instructor is a seasoned entrepreneur with experience mastering the topic area in their own businesses. They lead the class through a discussion of the topic and exercises to implement the concepts back at the office. At the beginning of class, we ask all of the Apprentices to put their phones away and close their laptops. A member of the JuntoTeam is in the room to take lengthy digital notes for them. During class the Apprentices’ only job is to listen, learn and push themselves to think differently about their businesses. 

2. GET CLOSE TO OUTSIDERS

Being too insular facilitates a herd mentality within a company. Brian Burkhart, CEO of SquarePlanet and a JuntoInstructor, uses the analogy of a fast-moving buffalo herd. All of them are looking down at the ground and following the movements of the peer group, while none are looking up to realize they are about to run off a cliff.

SquarePlanet believes in this buffalo analogy so much that they designed the above poster.

SquarePlanet believes in this buffalo analogy so much that they designed the above poster.

When entrepreneurs get stuck only working in the business, this often coincides with being surrounded by the same few people on a regular basis. There is nothing wrong with companies that operate more like families, spending meals, workouts, and late evenings together. But this routine and regularity can be an additional barrier as a startup leader tries to think differently about the next phase of growth.

One way to overcome this is to spend time with founders from other companies at a similar stage. Hearing about the business challenges and growth plans of a peer can be cathartic, validating and mind-opening. In Junto, we see this happen through the Peer Forums, where founders share openly with one another and discover how others are handling the difficulties and opportunities that come with scaling. Hearing how other leaders navigate things like cash flow crunches, finding the right talent, and defining a sales process shatters insularity and causes each person to think differently about his/her own challenges.

3. ASK FOR SHARED EXPERIENCES

As founders make time for bigger picture thinking, it’s normal to lean on the advice and input of consultants, advisors, and mentors.  Although well intended, asking for and receiving advice can be counterintuitive to staying out of the weeds. In giving advice, a mentor or advisor reflects on their past experiences, gut instincts, and lessons learned, and then provides prescriptive input on what the entrepreneur or company should do. As the leader hears the “should do’s”, it’s all too easy to begin thinking about what needs to happen next, shifting the focus to the details rather than staying in a more strategic plain of thought. We believe that the greatest value of the advising process comes from hearing past experiences and lessons learned of the advisor. Oftentimes these experiences and lessons gets bypassed, jumping straight to the “what to do” without explaining the “why”.

In Junto, we require our Mentors to share experiences rather than give advice. As Mentors tell their stories of when they experienced something similar, it arms the founder with new information and empowers them to decide how to proceed on their own, without any “shoulding” on each other. The more detailed the shared experiences, the better. Hearing about how another entrepreneur faced a similar scenario, the options they weighed, the decision they made, and the outcomes, takes a founder out of the details of their own situation and forces them to focus on the broader context.

 

When a company is growing fast, no founder has the perfect balance between the tactical and strategic. Flipping between the lens of “operator” and “leader” can cause an entrepreneur’s head to spin. But developing the habit of using both, and not depending on just one, is the best way to ensure a clearer vision for the company moving forward.