Learn more about Jonathan Lowenhar at ETWadvisors.com.
Every founder I know has a particular part of the business they love. Not surprisingly, that’s where they spend their time. Product founders spend time on the road map. Sales founders spend time selling. Engineering founders build things. In general, this is good. Founders should play to their strengths and hire people to fill the gaps.
Where this gets folks in trouble is when the focus on one area is to the detriment of what the business really needs.
One of my founders is a brilliant business development (BD) guy. He is charming and creative and can uncover areas of collaboration invisible to the average executive. The problem is that BD is not what matters most right now for his young company. His business has won a few early customers but does not yet have a product-market fit. The overwhelming priority is to get the early customers live, solicit feedback and ensure that the product does what it is supposed to do. Delighting those first customers is paramount.
The CEO knows this, but that type of work does not light him up. Instead of grinding through it, he instead continues his BD focus, attending conferences, schmoozing potential partners, and researching competitors. All eventually will be worthwhile pursuits, but if the first customers have a poor experience, none of the BD efforts will matter.
Why would the CEO behave this way? Is it because he’s selfish? No. Is it because he fully trusts the members of his team charged with deployment to execute without him? Maybe. Is it because he’s perhaps afraid or turned off by the work involved in deploying and delighting the first users? Methinks yes!
Early enterprise customers are a slog. Going live is rife with danger, dealing with negative user feedback is not fun, and addressing early bugs in a timely fashion can be stressful. Humans often avoid that which scares us, and founders are no different.
When faced with the (likely subconscious) choice of a painful, slow, iterative, and unknown dance to please an early user or the predictable excitement of attending a new conference, this CEO chooses the conference every time. It was his version of emotional eating covered in the shroud of doing what he loved.
This story does have a happy ending; the CEO in question is a smart, aware, and thoughtful man. When faced with the contradiction of spending a disproportionate amount of his time on something other than what really mattered most for his business, he quickly course-corrected. The result is that the early deployments are progressing well, and the company is back on track.