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7 Leadership Keys To Startup Survival


By Peter Sheahan and Julie Williamson, PhD, authors of “Matter: Move Beyond the Competition, Create More Value, and Become the Obvious Choice

Businessman sitting at table

Creating a startup can be a wild ride, rocketing from the thrill of launch to a hard landing into the realities of daily operations in a matter of months. Today, the average tech startup’s lifespan is just three years. Even most Fortune 500 companies last only 15 years these days, as opposed to a half-century a few decades ago.

In a business environment that demands speed and transparency, the key to longevity is building a company that matters. Those who conquer the marketplace matter by becoming the obvious choice. They create clear value not just for customers and investors, but also for their employees, partners, and even competitors. Successful companies lead by improving the industry as a whole. They move toward disruption in ways that drive growth in their markets.

Our research shows that leaders can position a startup for a successful launch and long-term success if they consider seven key factors:

1. Focus on the forest.

Resist the urge to celebrate every transaction, focusing instead on milestone victories. A company too enamored with every buy/sell moment quickly falls victim to shortsighted decisions. Stay focused on the bigger goals. Decision-making that considers the market, the community, and society at large is critical to sustaining relevance. Keep a keen eye out for potentially useful disruptions, and figure out how to leverage the opportunities they bring.

2. Hire the best.

Unless they are uniquely qualified, this isn’t the time to hire your buddies. Companies that matter need a team that can quickly assess market needs, develop an elevated perspective, establish durable relationships, and, most critically, execute on tough decisions. Finding talented people who are committed to a vision and have meaningful insight creates the foundation for a successful launch and a company that continues to soar.

3. Put value first.

In today’s marketplace, it’s not enough to offer super products or great service. Hungry competitors are constantly emerging and buyer preferences move fast. A company that creates more value for customers, solves problems they don’t know they have, and delivers an elevated impact in the process, will thrive. Envision a full spectrum of value, where customer problems are solved and changes in the industry are anticipated and addressed.

4. Look ahead.

Futurecasting and foresight are powerful assets that help you stay on top of your market and anticipate customers’ needs and wants. Leaders must stay attuned to what the future holds — and how to thrive in it. Living and learning at the edge of disruption (yours, your customers’, and your industry’s) is where you will find the future. Fostering a willingness to share wisdom across your industry is the best way to gain credibility and ensure the health of the market.

5. Grow up thoughtfully.

From a market share perspective, a startup has different goals than a maturing company. Startup cultures are hungry and relentless, often orbiting around a single decision maker. With growth and maturity, leaders must shift the culture. It’s essential that decisions and actions align with the company’s aspirations because more people must make decisions to keep things growing. This might mean fostering collaboration, altering organizational structures, and taking the time to ensure that everyone understands strategies and values.

6. Partner like you mean it.

Companies that matter are companies that discover the right partners and build trusting, open relationships. Don’t waste energy on low-value partnerships that don’t align with company goals. Remember that partnerships are by definition mutually beneficial — both sides get value out of identifying problems and creating solutions. You want your partners to succeed, and they feel the same about you. Otherwise, it isn’t a partnership.

7. Never settle.

Working to continually find the next edge of disruption and move there takes hard work and courage. Companies that find and deliver on new opportunities are investing in their own longevity. Consider Adobe, which saw its market dominance wane as technology changed and competitors emerged. Instead of digging in, the company redefined itself, seizing opportunities that the disrupted market was providing. Not only did Adobe help define the new market, it became the obvious choice for the future.

Startups thrive when they focus on an elevated perspective and relationships that feed the present and the future to foster accelerated growth.  As fledgling companies grow and mature, these tips can help them move through critical inflection points and remain relevant. With success comes responsibility. By focusing on vision, embracing disruption, and working toward the future, any company can survive startup and become a key influencer in its market and with its customers.


Peter Sheahan, Founder and CEO of Karrikins Group, is known internationally for innovative business thinking and thought leadership. Having successfully grown his own global company, Peter has first-hand experience in the challenges of building a business in a volatile, disruptive world. Julie Williamson, PhD, Chief Growth Enabler with Karrikins Group, is responsible for strategy and research. She is a leading voice in how organizations create sustainable growth by linking communication, design, strategy, sales, marketing, and service. Their new book is “Matter: Move Beyond the Competition, Create More Value, and Become the Obvious Choice“.


  1. Really great advice, another thing that really helped me was using the right people for the right jobs and making sure I was in the right location. I outsourced activities that I wasn’t very well experienced in (my web design) and things that I didn’t have time for (moving boxes when we got a better office). I would highly recommend using a removals company, I used http://www.kevinsvans.com/ and their professionalism helped me maintain mines during our move.

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