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Start-Up Thinking That Digs More Holes Than It Fills



In working with start-up CEOs for more years than I’ll admit to, I’ve seen common thinking patterns that if quickly addressed, could save a lot of headaches with employees, partners, and the media.


The CEO of a struggling tech company asked me if I could help his “idiot” sales team think better on their feet. Delving into the problem, it appeared they were getting hammered in the field and with reason. Word on the street said the company was stagnant and slowly dying.

When I asked the CEO how he would answer the tough questions, he spouted off a lengthy story about the strength of the company, a new product direction, and articulately shared a vision for growth.


I heard my grandmother’s Yiddish voice come out of my mouth to ask, “So where is it written?” He sheepishly answered, “In my head.”

Thinking: My origin story is my only story.


I wish this wasn’t an isolated story. I’ve lived many iterations of it with CEOs who seem to forget that an origin story starts somewhere and evolves from the same source.

Action: Get the story out of your head and into a video, presentation, or other communications channel. Make sure it’s sticky, and other people within the organization can own and repeat it.


Thinking: If they’re smart, they’ll get it.


While an origin story can be the easiest to create, if it hasn’t evolved after year one, you risk running out of conversational track with media, potential partners, and customers. By year two, it’s starting to look like you’re not making enough progress. Especially if you haven’t been announcing more than a few hires and one or two products.


Action: Find a good writer who can delve into all aspects of your company — the purpose your company serves (acting on this will give you way more to say), your wins, the problems you’re currently solving, your evolving culture, and future thinking. Then put it all together in a thought-leadership narrative and act on it by using this source as a springboard for presentations, articles, videos, sales pitches and almost any other form of content.


Thinking: I can get other people to do the public speaking.


Just because a reporter follows the industry, or a developer can ace your interview, doesn’t mean they hold deep understanding about you, your products, or your company. I’ve seen new CEOs become very frustrated and somewhat dismissive of people (press in particular), who don’t get what they’re doing right away.


Action: Try to think of yourself as the ambassador to and for your company. Like touring a foreign country for the first time, someone might know a few words in the language, but without full immersion, it’s hard to pick up all the nuances. Invite them in, make them feel welcome, and gently explain to them what you’re doing, why, and who it benefits. This applies to the press, potential partners, employees, and anyone else you want to influence.


Thinking: We have no competition.


The old Seinfeld joke, most people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy, cannot apply to you. While you may be more comfortable in the lab, or talking to your team, being a front man is part of the job description and substitutions just aren’t the same.


However, I’d like to remind those who hate public speaking that if you’ve pitched for funding, or prepped for a customer meeting, you already have a lot of the skills you need.


Action: Just like any other skill, you’ll need some support to become really good at it. Get a coach and a strong speech writer to start. Then, ditch your homegrown slides and find someone visually creative to make it shine.


Everyone wants to be a disruptor and maybe you are the next Airbnb. However, if there’s an old way of doing business and you have to convince people you’re way is better, especially to grow a rabid fan base beyond early adopters, then you have competition.


Action: Tell your story to acknowledge the fact without waving a hand and dismissing the question.

Want to know how to deal with tough questions without memorizing a 20 page FAQ, or the single most important tool you can bring with you into a press interview? Stay tuned as the saying goes. These are coming up next.


This article originally appeared in Medium.

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