How to Steer Your Start Up Career and Avoid the “Pizza Shop”

When we are not on the Appalachian roads with Digital Builders, a creative agency and non-profit cooperative, we are reflecting on my travels, projects, pitstops and coffee shops. Many of our team have been fortunate to have had the opportunities to play the start up game on the field many times, beginning careers in Silicon Valley. We’re writing a series of articles to bring you some real and interesting stories that can quickly give you a basis and tools to start your own strategic planning for growth!

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Recap: Are you truly wanting to grow a major corporation or simply run a pizza shop? (There’s nothing wrong with running a pizza shop!) Define what your business model and goal is and operate as if it already is that big. Most executive business partners communicate their intentions to grow. Yet, many of these teams will settle into managing the business as if it were a small, family-owned pizza shop. The reasons can be many; but, mostly fear and unwillingness to:

A.  trust a team of “equals”

B.   delegate decision-making authority

C.   risk dilution of brand ownership

D.  gain the “how-to” knowledge

E.   Get honest and upfront about vision and mission

Beware the “Pizza Shop” Culture

This author was a contractor providing marketing support to a small 15-person government contract software developer. The small company worked hard and was dedicated to the mission at hand, which was quite challenging, requiring cutting edge technology integration.

The problem? The owners were hoping to grow significantly and become the ‘go-to’ business integrators for the government sectors. However, these dreams were challenged early on because the owners didn’t have a handle on what they needed in order to meet deadlines. This stretched their capabilities and pockets—deadlines were missed, they were operating on short-term goals to keep things afloat, and they were juggling multiple accountabilities—sales, account management—to hold on to existing government contracts.

In addition, one of the owners was seldom present, and when he did show up, he communicated directions that would take the company back to its former position, a small software development job shop to outsource one small project at a time.

New hires that had been added to fill positions from churn eventually figured out that the owners would run a typical cycle of making a lot of marketing noise toward the end of their “one major” development contract to land another development contract that would be large enough to keep the existing small team working. In fact, when they were awarded one of the contracts they’d been working hard to “win”, they would do a little “re-org.” They only kept on developers and enough of them to maintain the contract and laid off everyone else.

The bottom line: they could have been more honest and open with their employees early on, saving new hires from making wrong career choices and avoiding a negative image associated with high employee churn rates – as reflected on social sites such as Glass Door. As a potential investor, executive leader or staffer, it’s up to you to analyze if there is structure in place today to support growth? Are budgets and cash flow projections in place? Are investors being courted? Is there a strategic marketing plan in place, and if so, how is the company executing it?

These two owners were actually really nice guys and extremely smart. They’d managed to maintain their business for a decade and were hard workers. But, always best to be honest, beginning with yourself, when starting or running a business so that you can make adjustments to overall goals based on realistic capabilities and realistic desires. Instead of wasting precious time, money and resources selling a false vision to themselves and others, they could have sharpened a plan to “own” their little swim lane and build a brand that stood for, in example, being the best one-job-at-a-time development shop. Focusing on what’s real and dedicating to continuously push perfection at what you do also offers extra by-product value for customers – in the case of this company this could mean passing on incredible efficiencies measured in delivery time and cost. This extra gap margin could be shared by all as more profit.

You see, the point is that whether you are a small pizza shop or a large enterprise, you can use the first stage of strategic planning, like INTERPRET, to get clear about your company’s potential—both good and bad; short and long-term. Think beyond making profits today to brand longevity. What will you need in the future to sustain brand growth?

Learn the situation quickly and have clear goals

It takes an enormous amount of personal effort and company resources to discover and support the very best direction for your business. Technology is developed or acquired. Talent is recruited. Hundreds of hours of slideware are prepared to communicate and motivate teams and stakeholders about a go-to-market plan.

If you are great at just making pizza and happy with only doing that, then it saves a whole lot of energy and time (and time is money!) if you pursue the right road. You’ll not be throwing in the towel and, at the end of the day, personally for me, it was always about what did I set out to accomplish that day and how did I do. If you set the bar too high – without the competency, passion, funding and plan – you’re only setting you and your colleagues up for disappointment and failure. And if you’re recruiting people to join a false plan, then you’re ultimately disrupting careers and lives of families.

Through this stage’s mashups, collaborations and discoveries you’ll gain the confidence to set up draft statements for your vision and mission and decide on the opportunities before you – build market share? Develop committed customers and stakeholders? Expand internationally? Build an outstanding reputation for social responsibility?

What are the first few steps to get started?

Take inventory, look at the data and make the right planning choices. A right planning choice is one where you know it’s the best way forward to optimize the value of the work you and your team are about embark upon.

Take quality time getting to know your team and collaborating. It’s amazing to me how little time some leaders believe is necessary to put into the collaboration and planning process, especially given the often HUGE objectives like “double growth rate”, “become the market leader in segment X”, “exit to acquisition or IPO in two years.” If you’re “all-in and on-board” to share the fate of the adventure, most executives will give the proper time for planning.

Have your engineers assess and take inventory of the drink formula, breakthrough, patent or chip spec or other secret sauce to determine or revalidate if that which you may call intellectual property is real. Respect the researchers but insist on primary data. Run your business school best practices; flesh out a good SWOT chart and keep plowing on to measure your ability to execute the mosaic of a strategy that’s forming before your eyes.


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