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A Conversation With John Bradberry, Author Of 6 Secrets To Startup Success (Part III)


John Bradberry, the author of “6 Secrets to Startup Success“, spent over twenty years as a business advisor and strategist, and has improved the performance of more than a thousand leaders and hundreds of teams. Since 1997, he has led an independent consulting practice focused on helping businesses of all sizes elevate performance and achieve healthy growth.

Here is Part Three of a three-part interview with Bradberry about how passionate entrepreneurs can channel their energies and focus into the right areas, as well as what to avoid, to improve their chances of success.

No amount of planning can fully cover the unexpected when doing business in the real world. You urge entrepreneurs to cultivate “focused flexibility”. What exactly do you mean?

Bradberry: Some entrepreneurs are fiercely focused. Others are highly responsive and flexible. But superior entrepreneurs have an uncanny ability to do both at the same time – to fully commit to an idea without attaching to it. In the startup phase, there is this healthy tension between the need to make things happen and the need for agility.

Effective founders have a plan – they are focused and clear about what they intend to do and they commit wholeheartedly to that path. Founders who can move fast and break through any obstacles in their way have a huge competitive advantage over those who are more doubtful and indecisive.

But, as the saying goes, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. The future is unknowable, and every new venture is a learning laboratory in which the founder’s ambitions and ideas are tested against market realities and cold financial facts. So, founding teams must continually reevaluate their assumptions, plans, decisions, everything. I can’t think of a tremendously successful business that looks exactly as its founders first envisioned it. Apple, Microsoft, Google are all dramatically different than originally drawn up.

Can you describe what you call the “feel-good bubble”, and how entrepreneurs can be trapped by it? How can they stay grounded and in touch with reality?

Passionate entrepreneurs are prone o taking an overly optimistic view of their startup path. There’s a lot of justifiable excitement and joy in the launching of a new business, and there are a number of social and emotional factors that lead people to offer encouragement and withhold concerns. Feel-good conversations are like comfort food for new venture teams, reinforcing early beliefs and feeding optimism and confidence. While this adds to the joy and excitement of the launch phase, it can mask important problems or risks that needs to be addressed.

An important principle that ensures startup teams are not missing important data or avoiding vital conversations is a concept I call “integrity of communication”. At the team level, building a high-integrity startup culture requires the investment of time, it requires a willingness to tackle or awkward issues head on, rather than sweeping them under the rug, and a certain level of skill with team conversations. At the personal level, it requires qualities like humility, curiosity, candor, and scrutiny.

Here’s a key principle: Don’t confuse feeling good with progress. Sometimes the opposite is true. Sometimes, the most challenging, stressful conversations are the ones that will really accelerate the business forward.

In “6 Secrets to Startup Success“, you encourage fledgling entrepreneurs to build personal resilience and perseverance to give their big idea plenty of time to thrive. What separates positive, productive staying power from stubborn, destructive clinging and dragging out a doomed business idea?

What a great question. In the entertainment industry, there’s the old altruism that it takes 20 years to become an overnight sensation. The same is true for a lot of successful startups – “home run” businesses are often due to the accumulation of many swings at the plate. It may take many years of tiny sparks to eventually create a roaring fire. This is why founding teams that can persevere over time will dramatically elevate their odds of success, assuming they learn and adapt along the way. At the same time, some founders doom themselves by attaching and clinging to a non-viable idea.

Here’s how I come to view it: while resilient entrepreneurs persevere over time, their first ideas don’t. The best founders move forward by iterating and testing their idea. They experiment with products, services, and business models in the marketplace; they interpret feedback; they learn and adapt on the fly. The idea that eventually catches fire is often quite dissimilar to the one they started with.

So the point of entrepreneurial perseverance is to keep the business alive, not the idea. That said, there are usually some core elements of the original vision tat survive, and because these aspects have been fire-tested, they become more valuable and powerful in the marketplace. But everything else falls away and is replaced by new ideas.

Throughout your book, you share the intimate stories of several passionate entrepreneurs. While following the mistakes and triumphs of these men and women, did you discover anything unexpected about the startup journey? How have you navigated the challenges of passion in your own career as an entrepreneur?

The overriding message I took from these stories is how hard, and special, it is to grow a really great business from scratch. Building a thriving business – which most of us dream of doing – is so much more difficult and rare than the magazines covers lead us to believe. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing – the rewards are incredibly rich for those who get it right. And the fact that it’s hard is part of what makes it so compelling for many of us. But the startup road is not for the faint of heart, so the primary purpose of my book is to help new founders avoid the self-imposed barriers that get in the way of success and happiness as an entrepreneur.

The further I progressed into the writing of the book, the more I realized that it is a kind of sermon to myself, a reminder that no one is immune from the slippery slope that leads to the passion trap. I am not exempt, and I have made of the passionate mistakes I document in the book. one thing I have going for me is I am somewhat of a worrier and a strong strategist, and I see a lot of gray in the world. That helps me as I plan my own ventures and consult for other entrepreneurs. But, still, I can’t count the number of times I have excitedly pulled out a blank sheet and jotted down overly optimistic sales projections based on my emotional enthusiasm for a new business idea. It’s the universal entrepreneurial malady. We all suffer from it.

Click here for Part One and Part Two. Also check out our review of Bradberry’s “6 Secrets to Startup Success“.