February 18, 2019

David Kirk’s Blog - The Shape of a Founder

By David Kirk

Note: In this blog I do not use the word ‘founder’ solely to refer to entrepreneurs who start a business from scratch. Anyone who assumes responsibility for the growth and success of a business is the ‘founder’ of the next stage of growth and success of that business.

Before founding Bailador with Paul, I worked as a general manager (and then CEO) in large businesses. Every year we had to do a budget. I always asked for an early look at the budget and the first question I asked was, “What’s the shape of the budget?”. What I meant was, how are we getting to our profit targets? In a big mature business, there are many ways to hit a profit target. New products, increased prices, more marketing, less marketing, overhead cost reduction, improved sales performance, acquisitions and so on.

The point of understanding the shape of the budget, the ‘how’ of the budget, was to assess risk and understand in principle how likely we were to achieve the budget. There is no point having hundreds of people working away between March and May to refine a budget that relies on a whole bunch of Hail Marys. My mantra was, get the shape right, and then work to smooth the shape into an achievable budget.

This blog is not about the shape of budgets in big corporates, it is about the shape of a founder. There are many ways to be a successful founder, but it helps to start with a broad shape if you are to give yourself the best possible chance of success.

Your shape is determined entirely by you, which is another way of saying, you have to know yourself if you are to succeed as a founder. Often the first question will be “am I a solo founder or do I need a partner?” There are two reasons for deciding a partner is the better way to go. First, you might recognise you need skills (sales) and personality attributes (likes talking to people) that you don’t have, but are essential for success. Second, you might recognise you need the emotional support of someone who knows exactly what you are going through when shit happens, as it always does.

The rest of the shape you need to make it as a founder goes under the very broad heading of leadership. There is no such thing as manufactured leadership. You figured that out at school, right? You knew the slogans about ‘producing young leaders’ were a load of BS. Leaders aren’t produced, they are released by opportunity. More on that another time.

When you start you won’t have all the attributes of the leader you need to be to succeed as a founder, but you need the shape. You won’t get there without resilience and determination, the capacity to communicate and inspire others and what I call ‘synthetic insight’. I will come back to that as well but basically, I mean having insight into the way things could be and the ability to synthesize market opportunity, product development and business growth into a plan to make it happen.

Refining your shape, smoothing it into the shape that leads to success, is actually quite easy, if you get what I am on about here. One of the great things about founding a company is that everything is new. You learn from everything that happens to you every day. You just need to take the time to file away the learnings and make yourself better. Be honest with yourself - it’s a feedback loop to knowing yourself. It won’t only make you a great founder, it will make you wise, and you are never too young to start on that journey.