Launching a startup is hard. Sustaining a growing business is harder.

Paul RiecksBy Paul A. Riecks

QUESTION: I started my IT development company a little over a year ago, and I had no idea it was going to be so difficult. Developing the software turned out to be the easiest thing to do. Raising money, presenting a new idea to people who didn’t like what they had and didn’t know what they wanted, but who were scared to try something different, hiring the wrong people — I felt like the poster child for what can go badly in starting a business. Now that things have smoothed out a little, I am trying to shift gears to plan for what’s next. What’s next?

RESPONSE: Congratulations are due you for making it through the first difficult gate — initial survival. As for what’s next, every business is different, but there are some general guidelines to follow. It’s time to build the organization you need to carry your company forward. There are two major steps to this project: Determine your highest and best use (HBU) and train yourself to own the results of your company’s work (not the process).

Your highest and best use. You probably know what it is, but to put a definition to it, try this exercise: First, write down what you really enjoy doing in the business and what you are truly good at. Second, if the answers to those two questions to some extent agree with each other, you have defined a role for yourself. In the four major functions of a business (marketing and sales, operations, finance and administration, and HR) decide where your HBU best fits. The four functions must be strong enough to balance each other if you want to create a stable company. Keep in mind that in advance of your ability to hire other professionals full-time, you can find them as outsourced part-time people.

Own the results, not the process. Three conditions that business owners can fall prey to are the desire for complete control, the belief that nobody can do things better than they can, and the fear of having more to lose if the business goes awry now that some success has been achieved. These three conditions can be the biggest roadblocks to growing a company. At some point, the business gets beyond the ability for one person to control everything. It is very difficult to let go of the psychic income of feeling in total control and doing the work that one does well. But leaders have to set the course — the desired goals and results — and rely on the people in the organization to do the right things. One way you can start relying on your people is to ask them what they think would make processes better.

Tap into the experience of others. There are Chambers of Commerce that hold events where you can network with other owners. If there is a trade association in your industry, see what mentoring and support services the association offers. There are also business-owner peer groups that meet regularly to share ideas, advice and experiences. The point of all this is to embrace continuous learning.

Continue the shift. Another difficult task is to shift from doing to leading. Leadership skills come easy to some, but others can also learn them. There is a fine book called Next Generation Leaders written by Martin O’Neill. The author also has an online training program that is associated with the book.

What “they” never tell you. What the business schools and business pundits never tell you is that growing a company involves a series of “walks off the cliff” — not just the first one you take to start or buy a business. But if you accept that success is a journey and not a destination, there are many ways to help yourself along the way and make the cliffs look like the negotiable steps they can be.

Paul A. Riecks is principal of Insight, which forms and facilitates peer groups of business owners and CEOs.

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