When I first imagined building a start up, I was so in love with the idea itself, that the realities never phased me. As time went on and I raised venture capital, and worked with my co-founder and our team to build out different tech platforms, just how hard it could be started to set in.
What began as just a website turned into media company with an audience of five million Millennials, two book deals and a Hollywood film in the works. If someone had told me that we would achieve that, I would have thought not only was it incredible, but that it was enough. But the problem with leading a start-up is it never feels like enough and the company could, and should always grow more. After all, start-ups are by definition early stage companies with all the potential to become a behemoth like Snapchat, Amazon or Uber.
In the beginning, becoming a leader of your own start-up may sound like an exciting adventure, but the reality is more nuanced. Leadership entails taking responsibility for the inevitable failures, creating a cohesive culture when things are seemingly falling apart, and most importantly, adaptability and the strength to course correct, regardless of ego.
Looking back and from speaking with other founders, there are three key characteristics you need to possess to lead a young company.
Early stage companies are more about promise and potential than defined assets. Vision will carry a leader far. It's the difference between being able to convince a team to join you, and investors to back you - versus proceeding on your own. Communicating a clear vision for your venture will inspire others to take the risk, and rally behind your mission.
Elon Musk’s ability to set an extraordinarily ambitious vision, is at the heart of SpaceX. He believes that in order to survive, humans need to become a “multi planetary species”, and Mars is our best option for colonisation. Musk’s timeline is aggressive, as he aims to have the first humans living on Mars in ten years. He says that having a Martian colony is his company vision, despite the odds, and regardless of what it takes.
Albert Einstein said "the only real valuable thing is intuition". As we all find ourselves now living in the Information Age, overwhelmed by data, intuition is more important than ever. When leading your start-up, a leader is faced with literally hundreds of decisions and gut instincts need to prevail.
Intuition is that intangible intelligence to tap into something greater than your worldly experience. Media mogul, Founder of Thrive Global and Uber Board member, Arianna Huffington says, "My best piece of advice is that entrepreneurs connect with their own wisdom and creativity". She believes that many of our most important decisions in business and in life are not arrived at through linear reasoning, but via our intuition. Huffington urges entrepreneurs to believe in their gut instincts and to remember the “timeless truth that life is shaped from the inside out."
Perseverance and tenacity are what separates successful business leaders, from those who fail and are unable to pick themselves up. Leaders inspire us all by their ability to never give up and persist despite the odds.
When Airbnb first started, CEO Brian Chesky lined up meetings with seven venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. He was hoping to raise $150,000 at a pre money $1.5 million valuation. Meaning, for $150,000 any of these investors could own 10 per cent of Airbnb. Every investor rejected the offer, with reasons such as they didn't see the market potential, and two other investors didn't even respond to Chesky’s emails for a meeting.
Airbnb is now valued at over $28 billion, and its success today depended on the founders remaining unabashedly optimistic and tenacious in the face of rejection and setbacks. As a leader, the grit to keep moving forward ensures you and your team, and vision, all live to see another day.
In start-up leadership it's important to recognise the role played by vision, intuition and tenacity. After all, business is not just about data and metrics, but the human DNA needed to take a venture beyond our suspension of disbelief, and to its full potential.