Trust Yourself - You’re Smarter Than You Think

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It is not uncommon for founders to lose focus as they struggle to incorporate all of the advice they receive on a daily basis regarding how they should spend their time as they develop their companies and products. By Candice S. Cook (Managing Member of Ca-Co Global Inc. & The Cook Law Group PLLC)

As an attorney who founded a “non-traditional” firm to address the changing needs in both the law, business consulting, and the clients I serve in the technology, intellectual property, startup, and entertainment space, I often find myself in meetings surrounded by brilliant startup founders who in a fit of frustration want me to re-examine their business plans, financing strategy, product, or entire business/startup idea because they are discouraged by the lack of excitement they are receiving from the investment community.

This exhaustion corrodes their confidence and leaves them emotionally worn. It is not long before they begin to lose their spirit and enthusiasm as they battle the fatigue that naturally occurs as a result of the long-term sacrifice required to make a startup work.

Being an entrepreneur and founder, particularly for a startup, can be overwhelming. It is not uncommon for founders to lose focus as they struggle to incorporate all of the advice they receive on a daily basis regarding how they should spend their time as they develop their companies and products.

As a result, meetings can become a place where teams engage in exhausting debates surrounding innovating, networking, marketing, iterating, pivoting, brainstorming, dumping a founder, dividing equity, using social media or creating a new platform, establishing a mobile presence, setting up shop in Silicon Valley or making a home in Silicon Alley, bootstrapping v. crowdfunding, or another debate of how long is really okay to be an X-year old founder sleeping in [insert uncomfortable habitat here] while living with [insert any relative, stranger, or being here] with ramen noodles as your source of nutrition and credit card bills as your form of financial support.

Despite the confusion, the frustration, and the feelings of desperation when it seems time to throw in the towel because you’ve followed the so-called rules to a “t” and yet all you have to show for it is what you believe to be the start of an ulcer and premature gray hairs, I say to you what I say to my clients, “don’t quit five minutes before the miracle happens.” Trust yourself. You are smarter than you think.

While it is not uncommon as an entrepreneur to feel that you are out in the proverbial ocean all alone with only your equally frustrated and exhausted partners/co-founders to keep you sane (or insane as the case may be), it is imperative that you remember that despite the hurdles, the lack of investors, and the work ahead — now is not the time to panic. Now is the time to tread water and hold tight while you recalibrate and plan with a purpose. As a founder, you must train yourself to trust your instincts and to take a step away so that you can make the right moves forward and identify the best plan of action. When you feel stuck and before you quit, here’s a list of what you can do to aid in the goal of reviving your company’s momentum.

Tip #1 - Go back to the beginning.

Reassess what your goals are and what the true mission of your company is and evaluate with fresh eyes whether the action steps you have taken to date have reflected that mission. Often times, founders set forth lofty plans of action and then drop them when a new opportunity arises. Before throwing in the towel, revisit the original plan and focus your additional steps to be in alignment with your company’s purpose.

Tip #2 - Review the team structure, the roles and the responsibility.

Look at your team and assess what has been done, what should have been done (avoiding the blame game), and what needs to be done (and be honest about who is going to do it). In my experience, I have learned that within every team there should be at least 2 people who have a relationship with the numbers. There should be someone who can bring in numbers (in this case numbers are clients, customers, and cash) and someone who can crunch the numbers and correctly present to investors a pitch that reflects a proper valuation (nothing says “you lack credibility” like a team that doesn’t understand their forecast).

Tip #3 - Brainstorm & Strategize Effectively.

Reconfigure your brainstorming techniques to verify that great ideas aren’t getting lost in the shouting, white boarding, and “team meeting” phenomenon. I highly suggest taking a page out of the design class I took in my entrepreneur program at Stanford (thank you to James M. Patell). I may be modifying it a bit, but in our class, brainstorming was a three-step process.

First, you identify the amount of time allotted for the entire brainstorming activity and set a timer to keep you true to the agreed upon brainstorming time. Second, after the clock starts each team member/founder should write out their ideas on post-it notes (you may even wish to allocate a different color for each person). There is no group communication during this time. Instead of discounting and shooting down ideas through over-thinking and judgment (which we all know can happen during “shout it out” and “jot it on the whiteboard” brainstorming sessions) this process allows even the most quiet and introverted team member to have their ideas noted during brainstorming.

As the team writes down their ideas they should also be posting the post-its on the white board for review. Third, when the timer goes off, end the brainstorming session firmly. The team can then review the post-it notes together. Yes, all of them. Some may find that it is helpful to organize the notes based on topic, but however you review them; review them all and discuss as a team. Finally, remember that when you leave brainstorming sessions it is imperative to capture your action steps and then do them!

Tip #4 - Evaluate the negative noise.

It is not advised that you focus too much attention on negative energy permeating your team during the “down time.” However, it can be valuable for the company to give some credence to critics and with an open mind review where the investors, public, and/or audience are saying the “holes” are.

You don’t have to change your mind to agree with the critics, but you should have valid answers, facts, and numbers that can change their minds or at least respond to their concerns. Use this time to step away from your project and your ego and evaluate.

Tip #5 - Review your timeline.

Take a good look at your timeline and decision for exiting the startup world. Are you really “out of time” or do you need to reassess how you are spending your time? If time is truly up (i.e., you gave yourself 6 months and now you are going on month 7) come together as a team and make the decision on whether or not it is time to end with a balance of logic and measured emotion.

Call yourselves out collectively on what is driving you to quit/end. Is it a realization that the idea cannot and does not work? Or have you not positioned it yet so that it can and will work? Are you ready to end because the ride is no longer fun? Or it is no longer truly feasible? Did you manage your expectations and if not, do so—immediately. Have you aligned your actions with your vision and is the team trusting itself in the process?

After you have reviewed these steps, you are then better positioned to move forward or to move on. Whatever decision you make, following these steps will assist with the strategizing so that your team is not making decisions in haste or naively. Work the plan and commit to the actions required. Finally, remember to trust yourselves. You are smarter than you think.

Editor's note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below. Photo credit: Gabriela Pinto on Flickr. CandiceSCookAbout the guest blogger: Candice S. Cook is the Managing Member of Ca-Co Global and The Cook Law Group, PLLC. Her Manhattan office includes a full service business development company and works in conjunction with a full service law firm which handles a vast range of complex and critical issues to assist with the growth and strategy development of businesses from conception and product design throughout a company’s many lifecycles. Follow her on Twitter at @CandiceSC1.