The Fundamentals of Founder Readiness
It’s hard to imagine a founder better prepared to launch his or her chosen startup than J. C. Faulkner. On the personal side, J. C.’s capacity for empathy, his natural charisma and self-awareness, and his initiative, communication, and interpersonal skills were all evident long before he launched D1. Professionally, he spent twelve years learning the fundamentals of mortgage lending, navigating the up-and-down cycles common to the industry. He led a number of First Union’s sales branches and regions across the United States, turning many of them around from under-performing to high-performing units. In the process, he got to know a lot of talented, well-connected people in a highly relationship-driven industry. And he gained a decade’s worth of leadership experience, building sales and service teams and managing bottom line results of large, high-growth business units.
Despite his expertise and experience, J. C. took the time to patiently prepare himself and his startup plan until the window of opportunity was right. “It took me a year and a half,” he says, “from waking up one day and thinking I could be doing this, to getting up one morning and saying I should be doing this.” He studied the marketplace, developed an initial game plan, recruited a colleague to build financial models, and quietly began lining up prospective investors. “I was ready, emotionally, long before I could piece it together logically.
I wanted to be prepared mentally, so I spent that time learning as much as I could at my current job.”
Similarly, long before Mark Kahn’s three-day winning streak in the French casino, he prepared himself for his entrepreneurial leap. Over eight years, he rotated through a series of increasingly challenging digital media jobs in Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, a global media juggernaut built in the image of its entrepreneurial founder. “It was really a great proving ground to be part of that,” he recalls, “with this spirit of entrepreneurship living in every operating unit. Even though there were hundreds of operating units, each one sort of lived on its own and acted as though it was a startup company.” During those eight years, he gained experience in a broad range of disciplines, including technology, marketing, corporate finance, and general management. When Mark left the company in 1998 to build a family of e-commerce sites on the early Web, his former boss, a rising News Corp. executive named Chris Holden—the one who had stood beside him in the casino, shocked and bemused, as he won an unexpected $72,000 in startup cash—watched his venture with interest. He knew Mark Kahn would bring a rare blend of intelligence, drive, and skill to his startup challenge.
Few aspiring entrepreneurs bring the high level of relevant experience and preparation of a J. C. Faulkner or a Mark Kahn. In fact, most founders plunge forward with more haste than preparation, injecting unnecessary risk and challenge in to their startup path. These cases underscore a set of truths that stand out to me after years of participating in and studying new venture creation:
■ Founder readiness makes a difference. A founder’s (or founding team’s) level of fitness and preparation directly and significantly impacts startup success or failure.
■ No founder is a perfect fit for his or her chosen startup. Therefore, every founder can improve on level of readiness and odds of success.
■ Founder readiness is an ongoing challenge. All entrepreneurs can and should continually evaluate and improve their fitness to lead their company forward.
Founder readiness is the principle of bringing your absolute best to your entrepreneurial effort, finding the best fit between your goals and capabilities and the needs of your new venture. This means understanding what you bring to the business, as well as anticipating what impact the business will have on you and the people you care about. Although it’s true that founders shape startups, it’s also true that startups shape founders. Your entrepreneurial role will test your character and expose your strengths, weaknesses, desires, and fears. Clarifying these issues at the start heightens your competitive advantage and allows you to have your cake and eat it too: You can bring rabid enthusiasm to your venture, doing what you do best and what you love to do, while also having the confidence that you’ve considered and addressed the areas of greatest challenge and risk. From an investor standpoint, the principle of founder readiness acknowledges the critical nature of the talent in whom you are investing. How well does the founder’s motivation and expertise match up with the needs of the proposed venture?
You can improve your readiness to succeed as a startup founder by undertaking five basic steps:
1. Clarify your reasons and your goals. Why are you doing this? What do you hope to achieve?
2. Understand your entrepreneurial personality. Who are you? What makes you tick?
3. Map your skills and experience. What can you do? What do
4. Leverage your relationships and resources. Who can help you? What assets are available for your use?
5. Position yourself for high performance. Are you optimally positioned to bring your “A” game—your best effort, energy, and performance?
In this section, The Fundamentals of Founder Readiness, I’ll further explore each of these five areas. The framework mirrors a readiness assessment process that I conduct with new clients to help them strengthen their venture foundation. These questions will help you better understand your passion and your skills and how these relate to your chosen venture. In the final section of this chapter, Purifying Your Entrepreneurial Passion, I’ll revisit the principle of understanding passion and provide three additional principles for making the most of your passion: connect it, strengthen it, and direct it.