5 keys for success if you’re leading a startup

5 keys for success if you're leading a startup

Being an entrepreneur starts with an idea and a vision of the future. These can be enough to get a new company started, raise money, and bring on the first few employees.

The real motivation, though, the one that keeps you going after a tough day or two, is the recognition that customers are genuinely excited about your product or service.

Ellen Rubin, CEO of ClearSky Data, an early-stage company building a breakthrough solution in enterprise infrastructure, knows this well.

Rubin, a three-time entrepreneur, explains that it’s easy to keep your internal team moving when prospective customers are as excited as you are.

“As much as startups are fueled by an entrepreneur’s ambition and goals, making customers happy — and keeping them that way — is the real driver,” she said.

However, a startup’s longer-term success demands more from its founder than just some excited customers. I spoke with Rubin to get her advice and best practices for entrepreneurs to guide their young companies to success.

Here are her five tips:

1. Team Communication Is Everything

At the beginning, it won’t be difficult to keep employees informed of every decision. With every new addition to your team, it’s important to take a look at different processes and adjust them to ensure they’ll work as your company grows.

Functional silos can form quickly if founders aren’t proactive. Good communication and transparency are the hallmarks of any successful organization. These actions keep employees engaged and support strong team collaboration.

As a business grows, Rubin recommends maintaining a commitment to open forums also makes it clear to managers they need to interact with their teams and keep everyone engaged. Employees need to know they can always ask questions and suggest better ways to do things, and it’s up to the company’s leaders to make that clear.

2. Trust the Hard Data and Execute

The decisions a founder makes will determine the success and direction of her company. Employ hard data to inform decisions large and small in order to focus employees on demonstrating real value and to keep all decision-makers on the same page.

This practice also prevents bias from clouding the decision process in the face of tough choices like investments and roadmap decisions. Instead, using hard data to determine which position to hire next or which technology tradeoffs are warranted will ensure you make the best possible decision.

3. Follow Your Instincts and Stick To Your Core Values

Unfortunately, you won’t always have hard data. The data might be inconclusive or simply unavailable, and at the end of day, you still have to make a decision. When this happens, you have to trust your gut — the same gut you trusted when you decided you could turn a great idea into a viable business.

In the absence of hard data, draw from your instincts, as well as your company culture, values, and goals. You may not always be right, but there’s merit in sticking to your core principles and standing behind your choices.

4. Find a Business Partner Who Complements Your Strengths

“This is a common one that’s shared among entrepreneurs, but it begs repeating because it’s the truth. And it can make or break your early-stage growth,” said Rubin.

Does your co-founder pass the “Chicago airport test?” In other words, could you find yourself delayed in an airport with him or her for long hours and still be able to arrive at your destination and deliver a powerful presentation together?

Your founding partner and other early team members are people with whom you’re going to spend a lot of time. Think about the characteristics that complement you professionally and as a person, and seek people who can help you challenge your assumptions and contribute different ways of problem-solving.

5. Never Stop Learning

It’s okay to admit that you don’t know everything. Rubin says that when she learned this in her own career, she became a better employee, manager and, eventually, founder. It’s not uncommon for young executives and others to think not knowing the answer to a question is a bad thing.

Key milestone events, successes, and mistakes are all learning moments. As any company starts to grow, it’s likely that “holes” in expertise and domain knowledge will appear. This means that you and your management team need to create a learning culture to encourage everyone to keep growing along with the company’s needs.

The best way to do this is to encourage people from different functional areas to sit with each other and share their different areas of expertise. It’s amazing how much great input can come from applying cross-functional knowledge to a complex problem. But it’s equally important to encourage employees to look outside the company for experts and advisors who can help wrestle a tough issue to the ground. When people understand that ongoing learning is a company norm, everyone wins.


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