Learn the tried-and-true development tips to help startup founders develop opportunities and build their companies.
I’ve spent my career advising startup founders and founding companies myself. When you work in a big corporate structure, there are many structured professional development opportunities. When you’re a founder, you have to create your own professional development opportunities and prioritize those against building your company.
Here are my tips for professional development for startup founders.
Join a community of peer founders
Entrepreneurship can be lonely. Finding and joining a program for founders at your stage is a straightforward way to find peer founders. Two places to start are All Raise and On Deck — two organizations that run programs for founders at various stages. All Raise runs a Seed Bootcamp and a Post-Seed to Series A Program, and On Deck runs a Founder Fellowship and a Scale Fellowship. (Full disclosure, I am an inaugural member of All Raise’s Visionary Voices Speaker Bureau and am an inaugural fellow in On Deck’s Fintech Fellowship and On Deck’s Customer Success Fellowship.)
Connect with founders who are one to two funding stages ahead
It always helps to know what’s coming and to get advice from those more experienced than you. These founders know and understand what you are dealing with and can provide a fresh but experienced perspective.
Once you get further ahead, be sure to return the favor and connect with founders who are one to two funding stages behind you. Personally, I love the energy of new founders. I find it energizing to mentor and advise new founders. In addition, the experience of advising other entrepreneurs can help you be more reflective of your own experiences, helping you learn more quickly.
Ask for feedback
Ask for feedback frequently, and be specific when asking for feedback. I’ve found that frequent feedback has not only helped me continually learn and grow as an entrepreneur but has also helped me generate new ideas to move my business forward. If someone gives you vague feedback, ask for specifics on what was good or what could be improved. Even when you get specific feedback, ask clarifying questions so you can be sure to leave with actionable insights. Always thank people for their time and feedback, and follow up with your progress if and when appropriate.
Get a mentor or coach
Yes, I said a coach. Don’t be afraid of coaching. When we were kids, we all had coaches and mentors — experienced advisors to help us along the way. As a founder (or any adult navigating their career), a coach can be invaluable. Coaches can help you improve your leadership skills, increase your productivity, unlock new opportunities, and help you set achievable goals and deliver results. Not sure how to find a coach or mentor? Ask your peer founders or founders 1-2 stages ahead of you for some recommendations. However you find your coach, make sure you find someone you connect with and trust. Without trust, coaching won’t get you anywhere.
Delegate, delegate, delegate
Don’t hire quickly. In fact, I recommend doing each job function before hiring. But once you understand the work that needs to be done, delegate it as quickly as you can. Hire employees if the work calls for someone internal, but also be open to building a virtual talent bench. Using a liquid workforce ensures that companies can tap into the right expertise and skillsets as needed for any time frame. Engaging on-demand advisors and consultants is an efficient way for startups to grow their teams and scale their businesses without increasing their headcount.
Grow your network
When you’re busy building your startup, it can be too easy to get deep into the weeds. As a founder, your role should be strategic. Yes, you should dig in when needed, but you should be focusing on the overall vision. Building a network of fellow founders, industry experts, investors, mentors, coaches and advisors will help you accomplish your extraordinary vision. Network with other founders in your industry, regardless of stage. Network with investors in your industry, even if you aren’t fundraising — and in fact, especially when you aren’t fundraising.
Build a “personal board of advisors“
No one is exactly like you, and no one has built a startup precisely like yours. So there isn’t a single person out there who can advise you on all aspects of your startup. You’ll have to find and build a group of mentors and advisors who can help you with various issues. The right mentors are people who believe in you and are willing to provide honest, candid feedback.
Get a COO
As soon as you can, get yourself out of the business of running the day-to-day operations and hire a COO. You need a COO who will not only have strong organizational, analytical and project management skills but will also be your partner in growing your business. Trust and good communication are essential building blocks to the success of your relationship. The right COO will help you run your company’s operations while helping you take it to the next level.
Invest in your development
As a founder, it’s easy to put off spending time networking or investing in your personal development. After all, there’s always a new fire to fight or an opportunity to tackle every day. Personal development time can be a low priority compared to the day-to-day requirements of running and growing your business. But this personal investment is critical to your success as a founder and entrepreneur. Prioritize and carve out time to focus on your personal development — invest in yourself as a leader, and it will help you in ways that you won’t anticipate.