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Weekly Briefing Note for Founders

29th June 2023

This week on the startup to scaleup journey:
  • Founders must understand their conative strengths
  • Product Manager - the most elusive startup role

Founders must understand their conative strengths

There is an unspoken question that investors ask when evaluating a high growth startup: Can the founder themselves scale? We said last week that the street smart entrepreneur who can raise a pre-seed round with a good narrative, pull in the early hires, create a sense of momentum and an esprit de corps, is often very negatively correlated with the sort of personality that wants to institutionalise business processes. First-time founders, in particular, can suffer from imposter syndrome as the business begins to grow. They start to question if they have the talents necessary to be the best CEO. Often, they get stuck because they don't know how to properly evaluate their suitability for the journey ahead. They are unsure how to act on these uncertainties and rarely confide in others that could provide support and guidance. When surrounded by stakeholders that constantly expect them to just 'deliver' as the CEO, the pressure is never off for long enough to allow such introspection. How can founders investigate these questions and use insights gained to move the organisation to the next level? Can they do this before stakeholders (usually the institutional investors) raise their own concerns and take the decision out of the founder's hands?

Phil Catterall is an executive coach that deeply understands the entrepreneurial journey. Over the past 8 years, he has worked with many founders as well as high profile fund managers and other business leaders. His early career was in sales and marketing for a variety of US software companies before he founded, built, and eventually sold his own insurance services startup in 2009. Now, with his executive coaching practice, he often meets entrepreneurs that still have the passion but feel uncertain about how their natural abilities align with the role they find themselves in. He says, "Some are crumbling from 'indigestion', attempting to work harder and harder rather than developing new 'EQ' related skills like focusing on their strengths, team selection, and delegation". But at least they have decided to do something about it - either through forethought or crisis. He says this is often a big step as it takes humility and courage to look at ourselves and do the inner work. But to objectively understand these capabilities and then take action requires some form of structured approach. One tool Catterall uses is the 'Kolbe A' self-assessment. This provides an easy, initial step for founders seeking a starting point on the pathway to greater self-awareness. [I took the 'Kolbe A' self-test this week and can see why this is such a powerful springboard for action.]

Whilst other approaches study cognitive matters (how smart you are - thinking, IQ, skills, knowledge, experience, education) or personality influences (feelings, desires, motivations, attitudes, preferences, emotions, values), the Kolbe approach focuses on the conative. This is 'action derived from instinct'; how you will naturally approach things, how you will strive to get things done in the best way. This will predict what approach will work for you and what won't in any setting where action is required. A person's conative profile is unchanging and thus a key foundation stone of self-awareness. By comparing an individual's perception of their own job responsibilities with their Kolbe A profile, Catterall reveals areas where they may be working against their grain. He says this is not just critical to developing greater self-awareness but taking consequent action. Such insights can have huge benefits for founders in building out their teams and reshaping their own roles as the company scales. In the extreme this could include hiring a new CEO to take over the reins at a certain point in the growth journey. This can often bring a sense of relief and a return to the excitement once felt at the beginning. "Founders that develop a greater awareness of their conative strengths are more likely to succeed", says Catterall. What are yours?

Product Manager - the most elusive startup role

The role of Product Manager can be pivotal in the success of a startup. Yet some barely know it exists. Many others will think they have implemented the function but the job, as currently defined, will not be delivering the value that it should. This is partly due to the fact that the role of Product Manager is fairly new in the startup world and is still evolving. It is not a classic functional role like sales or engineering, but a role that lives at the intersection of many specialities (engineering, design, customer support, finance, sales, marketing, etc) - and looks quite different at different companies. It is strongly aligned with the core role of the founder/CEO in the very early days of the startup. This is because the Product Manager (PM) is at the epicentre of understanding customer need. PMs figure out what the product should do, write the spec, and also write the external messaging - the facts they want the customer, and all other stakeholders in the company, to understand. It is not a role that fully develops until the company is starting to scale (and the founder/CEO lets go of the responsibility themselves), but then becomes a crucial part of the growth strategy. Critically, PMs keep every functional team in check to make sure they don't lose sight of the ultimate goal - happy, satisfied customers.

Tony Fadell is veteran of Silicon Valley. He led the iPod division at Apple and was co-creator of the iPhone. He co-founded Nest Labs (creator of the Nest Learning Thermostat), which he sold to Google for $3B. He is now an investor, advisor, and author. His book, 'Build' has become a founder classic. Fadell is a passionate advocate for the Product Manager role, which he simply describes as 'the customer's voice on the team'. "Engineers like to build products using the coolest new technology. Sales wants to build products that will make them a lot of money. But the Product Manager’s sole focus and responsibility is to build the right products for their customers." And this means 'product' in the broadest sense - it is the entire customer experience from the initial messaging to what happens in customer support and every potential pain point along the way. This is why Product Managers are the hardest people to hire and train. It’s why the great ones are so valuable and so sought after. Because they have to understand it all, make sense of it. And they do it alone. They’re one of the most important teams at a company and one of the smallest.

Because the needs of each product and company are so different, these are incredibly difficult jobs to describe, never mind actually hire for. There’s no set job description or even a proper set of requirements. And this is why the role is often elusive and not even on the founder's radar - until they start to hit scaling difficulties. As Fadell says, "The role requires an almost impossible combination of structured thinker and visionary leader, with incredible passion but also firm follow-through, who’s a vibrant people person but fascinated by technology, an incredible communicator who can work with engineering and think through marketing and not forget the business model, the economics, profitability, PR. They have to be pushy but with a smile, to know when to hold fast and when to let one slide." In the modern startup they also perform a critical function in letting the CEO themselves scale, as we discuss above. And to Fadell they are the consummate growth drivers because they care so deeply about the customer: He adds, "They’re incredibly rare. Incredibly precious. And they can and will help your business go exactly where it needs to go."

Happy reading!

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