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January 2018

Sometimes best practice isn’t best

By | Startup general interest | No Comments

The blogosphere has transformed entrepreneurship. Twenty years ago there were precious few resources available for founders and most either had to find an advisor who had done it before or rely on trial and error. That increased the power of the network effects at the heart of startup hubs where it was easier to find those conversations – especially Silicon Valley. These days it’s all different and a decent guide to doing just about anything is only a few clicks away. Here at Forward Partners we’ve contributed our fair share of such guides at The Path Forward.

However, whilst all this great content is amazingly valuable for entrepreneurs it gives them a new problem. If they try to follow the best practice advised for fundraisingrecruitmentbrand, writing code, product management, and growth then they will quickly run out of hours in their day, at least in the early days when resources are scarce. Moreover, this advice isn’t only coming from the blogosphere, it is coming from investors, board members, mentors, accelerator programmes and friends at other startups, making it harder to deal with than it should be.

I’m not criticising here. Much of the advice is highly-insightful and well-intentioned, and I’ve doled out my fair share (including on this blog). What I am saying is that founders need something more. They need to work out where in their companies they should apply best practice and where they should not.

For most startups these days the first answer is product. If we look at the three biggest startup successes of recent years, Google, Amazon and Facebook, then it’s clear their early success was underpinned by true excellence in product. However, this hasn’t always been the case and isn’t the always the case now. To go back a generation of startups, the success of Oracle and Microsoft came more from being great at sales and partnerships than from being great at product.

Still, for most startups today best practice in product, including customer development and lean development principles, will be critically important. But great product is rarely sufficient on its own, and most successful companies will have an additional spike or two in the other areas listed above.

The task for founders, then, is to first identify the areas where they will excel. That will be determined in part by the market they are in and in part by the experience and capabilities the founding team brings to the table (but don’t make the mistake of focusing where founders are strong if it isn’t right for the market). The second task is to work out the minimum requirement in all the other areas. That’s complicated, and will change as the business matures and standards rise across the board. It’s also something that the blogosphere doesn’t help with.

A simple ‘where we will excel and where we will do just enough’ framework will also be helpful when founders are talking with mentors and advisors. Too often I see mentors frustrated when their advice isn’t actioned and entrepreneurs avoiding mentor conversations for fear of leaving with a list of recommendations they won’t have time to implement. When a startup is just a handful of people it’s ok to be great where it counts and average where it doesn’t matter so much.