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How to Align Your Startup Team for Execution

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According to Stanford research 92% of start-ups fail in the first 3 years. There are literally thousands of great ideas out there, but what separates successful companies is the ability to execute and get traction. Failure is guaranteed without execution.

Try to do everything and you will do everything badly – the key is to focus on one thing, do it well and do it until it’s done. Get this right and the whole team will be focused, working together to carry the load and your company will be on its way to being part of the 8%. Get it wrong and everyone will be spread paper thin, trying to do everything, doing everything badly and be en route to being a statistic.

The key is alignment. By using daily huddles, weekly/monthly problem solving and quarterly planning, high performing startups align what the team is doing (OKRs) day to day and week to week, with a quarterly theme, annual milestones, 3-5 year targets and the critical long-term fundamentals – purpose, BHAG, brand promise and core values.

Aged-care SaaS start-up KareInn (Seedcamp) and urban garden start-up Patch (Forward Partners) are both using these alignment tools to execute voraciously and are ahead of plan to their next financing milestones.

Clarity with a 1-Page Strategic Plan

At Forward Partners, we use a tool called the 1-Page Strategic Plan, developed by author and founder of the Entrepreneurs Organisation – Verne Harnish. The framework and the insights I discuss in this article, are in large part developed by his formidable organisation – Gazelles.

As your team grows from 3 to 10, 10 to 25 and 25 to 200, the organisation goes through cycles of change as you learn to manage communication, planning, execution and productivity.

A 1-Page Strategic Plan literally gets everyone onto the same page and allows you to harness the power of the team. Everyone knows that a 20-page business plan is obsolete the moment it is written. No one reads it and it sits on a file server! A 1-page Strategic Plan is a living document that captures on one-page the entire company’s strategy. In the short term, this captures what the team is doing day-to-day, week-to-week, with the top quarterly priorities (rocks) and a number one priority – the quarterly theme. In the longer term, the plan captures annual milestones, 5 year targets, and the really long-term stuff – purpose (mission), vision, your BHAG, and the stuff that binds you together as a team – core values.

Where to begin?

With venture funded startups, I like to focus the mind by getting clear about the founders’ personal objectives and the implications for a “liquidity event”. Most founders are primarily motivated by the passion to “do something” worthwhile, build and create.

For better or worse, the moment you decide you need to do this with the help of an investors money, rather than boot strap yourself, you become wedded to a second set of objectives. This means making sure you are aligned with your investors about what a successful “exit” looks like.

We do this by defining our 3-5 year targets. Most accept that 7-10 years is more realistic for an exit but 3-5 years focuses the mind.

  • What would success look like? What would be your gross revenue? EBIT margins? EV/market cap?
  • Where will your company be playing (your sandbox)? Which markets, products, geographies?
  • What are the 3-5 major capabilities that you will need to build to get there?

Have you done this explicitly with your investors? Surprisingly few companies do.

What next?

Having worked out where we want to be in 5 years, next we “go long!” – financial goals only go so far. The truth is, great organisations are motivated by things much more fundamental than money. It’s important for you to find your “north star” – purpose, core values, BHAG.

A company’s “purpose” is the distillation of what the company is really about. At its core, when your customer buys your product or service, there is really something much more fundamental that they are trying to achieve. It’s often a basic emotion or need. The objective is to get it down to one word, or at most a short phrase. To get to the root cause of a problem Toyota developed a tool called 5 Whys. It’s hard to do this well and it requires persistence, but an example is to be found here.

At Forward Partners we are “an early stage Venture Capital investor”. Why do we do that? Why is it important? Ask and answer that question five times and generally you get down to “to save the planet!” Back up one level and you will find your purpose. At Forward Partners our purpose is “real prosperity”. We are in the business of helping our portfolio company founders achieve their goals and “real prosperity”. Our portfolio companies are “real” businesses, making a difference and doing worthwhile stuff in the world. “Real prosperity” also applies to the limited partners in our fund (our investors) who in turn are trying to deliver better returns for their pension fund investors, and perhaps in turn your grandmother – “real prosperity”. Finally “real prosperity” also applies to our team who we want to have rewarding careers, develop their skills, do satisfying work to support our portfolio companies and enjoy rewarding compensation. All our team members participate in the carry – “real prosperity”.

Having distilled your purpose, next we look for a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) a concept developed by author Jim Collins. There are lots of resources available online to help you better understand the concept, but the objective is to find a measurable goal that really raises your sights. If done well, it might result in a sharp intake of breath and the response “wow, if we really achieved that, that would be mind blowing!” The classic BHAG was Microsoft’s “a PC on every desk” (which for a time they basically achieved!)

Powerful also is brand promise – what are the three fundamental reasons why your customers would choose you over your competitors? We then look for three brand KPIs that measure how effective we are at delivering on those promises. Southwest Airlines is a great case study for a focused brand promise.

Finally we distil our core values. Before you roll your eyes, what we mean by core values in this context is definitely NOT the “motherhood and apple pie” that masquerades as core values at your average big corporate – honesty, integrity and team work. Within the context of the 1-Page Strategic Plan, what we are looking for is truth about the real values that define the organisation. Objectively, they can be “good” or even “bad”. Often we look to the founder for core values. What was their original motivation for starting a business.  Secondly we look to high performers in the team – who are those individuals that you wish you could clone? Often a core value lies in their conduct.

Bringing it back to the here and now

Having articulated the long-term vision for the business, it’s time to start bringing it back to the present. I often find myself using the analogy that your company vision (purpose, BHAG, Brand Promise and Core Values) is equivalent to “which mountain the company is going to climb”. The quarterly and annual milestones are like deciding to tackle the summit via “basecamp two and basecamp five”.

So next we determine where the company needs to be in 12 months time? For example, what milestones do we need to deliver to raise our Series A or Series B? We could define this in terms of:

  • Users
  • Subscriptions
  • Unit sales
  • Revenue targets and profitability.

We underpin this with 3-5 key initiatives or milestones and 1-2 critical numbers for the team to monitor; ideally one that is people or balance sheet related and a second that is process or P&L related.

Having determined where we need to be in 12 months, we then bring the focus back to the next quarter, more or less looking for a similar set of metrics to deliver in the next 90 days. Here we focus on the top 3-5 priorities or “rocks”. The term is borrowed from a fable about the most important things in life. If you are to fill a bucket with rocks, pebbles and sand, don’t put the sand in first as there will be no room left for the pebbles and rocks. Of the dozens of things that the company needs to do every quarter, the “rocks” are identified as the most important. A company’s rocks might include “launch a new product”, the pebbles are “make payroll” and the sand is “respond to my slack messages”. The analogy is used to focus the mind and carve out time to work “on the business” rather than just “in the business”.

Next we focus the team with a quarterly theme. Ideally this has everyone in the company focus on the most important (number one) of the top five priorities. When this process works really well companies will identify a theme that is humorous, a bit irreverent and fun. At Forward Partners this quarter our theme is “Unleash the Beast” – code for us documenting and clearly articulating the way we help our portfolio companies build their MVP. We have a scoreboard and while there is a core team, everyone in the company is contributing to the process. If we deliver on the theme the company will celebrate by going white water rafting together!

Finally, everyone in the company captures their own individual priorities and KPIs that underpin the company’s quarterly theme and quarterly rocks. At Forward Partners we use Google’s OKRs – objectives and key results.

Maintaining Alignment 

The process described above is conducted during a 1-2 day (!!) offsite. The whole team contributes to building the plan. This not only creates buy-in and team alignment, but often generates insights that senior management had not considered.

The key to using a 1-page Strategic Plan is to recognise that it is a process (run quarterly) and not a static output. Each quarter the team comes together and rebuilds the plan from the ground up. In between we take the plan out to the market and test it. Tzun Tzu says “no strategy survives first encounter with the enemy” and the same is true for strategic planning. Each quarter the team brings back learning and insight that helps refine the plan. Next quarter we may still be climbing the same mountain but this time we will “bypass basecamp two and go straight to basecamp three”.

Between quarterly planning sessions, alignment is maintained with Meeting Rhythm. The best teams huddle daily (no more than 15 minutes stand-up), problem solve weekly, assemble to work on strategy monthly and plan quarterly.

Summary

All together this is the process of executing well by maintaining alignment and using a 1-page Strategic Plan – huddle daily, meet weekly/monthly to problem solve and plan quarterly. In your planning, align what the team is doing (OKRs) day to day and week to week, with a quarterly theme, annual milestones, 3-5 year targets and the critical long-term fundamentals – purpose, BHAG, brand promise and core values. Simples.

Finally, a word from one of our highly talented founders at Forward Partners – Freddie Blackett at Patch

“For Patch, the 1PSP has been great because:

  • It’s a simple, not-too-scary way for a startup to get down on paper their Strategy 1.0. Tools like the lean canvas are super at first but they can be inferred as static. LC is a portrait of the business’ proposition as it is/wants to be. 1PSP is a portrait of the business, where it is headed and how it’s going to get there, with clear implications for everyone involved.
  • Consulting tools can feel a bit daunting and consulting-y but what’s been great for Patch is that the shorthand for our quarterly theme has been deliberately light-hearted and catchy, for example “BIGKEN65” and “Barbara Windsor”. That might sound flippant but actually it’s been really important for it to catch on across the team.
  • We had a great facilitator! Like with all things strategic, it’s vital to have someone asking the right questions of you to draw your team out of the day-to-day and into the bigger picture. Unless you have someone experienced in group facilitation, it’s difficult to get that. The obvious risk being that you might end up with the wrong plan.”

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About the Author

Written by Steven Gledden of the Path Forward. The Path Forward was developed by Forward Partners, a VC platform that invests in the best ideas and brilliant people. Forward Partners devised The Path Forward to help their founders validate their ideas, build a product, achieve traction, hire a team and raise follow on funding all in the space of 12 months. The Path Forward is a fantastic startup framework for you to utilise as an early stage founder or operator.

Callum Connects

Mikyung Kim, TV Commercial Producer

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Mikyung Kim is a savvy producer who runs her own TV and print production business, based in Hong Kong.

What’s your story?
I am a TV commercial and print producer working with advertising agencies and brands to bring their communication needs to the screen. My background is in film production and I started my career in Hollywood working with Oscar winning directors Michel Gondry and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Before starting my own company last year to produce content directly with agencies and brands, I was with Ogilvy & Mather Hong Kong for nearly five years as the Senior Producer and Head of TV running the film production department.

What excites you most about your industry?
How it’s constantly evolving! Every day is different and it’s certainly never boring. I love that it’s a creative industry and that my job involves talking to people with creative minds on how we can bring a story on paper to life. It’s exciting that the advertising industry places high value on the creativity and effectiveness of content. I’ve produced a few commercials that creatively push the envelope with fun and sometimes wild ideas that have converted into positive brand awareness. Ever heard of KFC Finger Lickin’ Good…Nail Polish that yes, tastes like chicken? https://www.adweek.com/creativity/kfc-just-made-edible-finger-lickin-good-nail-polish-yeah-tastes-chicken-171245/

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born in Seoul and raised in Hong Kong until graduating from high school at HKIS. I spent my university years in Boston at Emerson College and worked in Los Angeles at Anonymous Content and Partizan Entertainment. But on a brief visit back to Hong Kong in 2010, I decided to move back and continue my career here, and it was the best decision I ever made.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Hong Kong is my home so it will always be my favourite city for business and for me personally. What I love about Hong Kong is that while I am based here, I can actually work with agencies and brands from anywhere in APAC. If I need to attend an important meeting, I can just hop on a quick flight easily. I spent most of 2017 working in Seoul with Korean agency Cheil and Samsung, and currently I am working with Japanese agency ADK and Toyota based in Singapore.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Fake it until you become it,” from Amy Cuddy’s TED talk. Worth a watch. This helped me early in my career when I felt like I was under qualified for the job I was in. I learned to fake my confidence and fake a powerful body language until I truly felt that confidence became something real. It was nerve wracking at first but it worked and now I don’t have to fake it.

Who inspires you?
My friends. Noelle who worked part time jobs while being a full time student to pay her own tuition while we were in college together. Osti who is a lawyer focused on supporting developing nations and a board member of Redress, an environmental NGO working to reduce waste in the fashion industry. Vanessa who runs a real estate company, co-owns the gym Crossfit Asphodel, started a health foods business called Quo and NGO The Keep Moving Project to promote wellness in our community. Cathy who will be the first Asian woman to direct a big budget superhero film starring Margot Robbie with Warner Bros and DC. And too many more to name!

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
5.2 million plastic bottles are thrown away in Hong Kong every day. Plastic pollution is a major issue for the environment and we as responsible citizens can do our small part by reducing our consumption of unnecessary plastic. I do mine by having a water filter at home and carrying my own reusable water bottle with me everywhere I go. I love the brand Hydroflask because the stainless steel material keeps water hot or cold for hours, so I don’t feel tempted to buy a cold water at 7-11 on those hot, humid days we have here.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
About five years ago I purchased my very first stock and put one month’s salary into it, which at the time was a lot of money for me. Knowing how that stock has performed now, I would have put all my savings into it.

How do you unwind?
Exercise is essential in my daily life to help clear my head and de-stress. My go to is a workout at Crossfit Asphodel, running outdoors, yoga and hiking. But a glass of red wine and live music at Soiree in Soho on Sunday night works pretty well too!

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
One of the best trips I ever took was to the island of Lombok in Indonesia. Two girl friends and I did a 3 day 2 night hiking and camping trip to summit the Mount Rinjani Volcano. It was physically challenging but mentally relaxing. There was no cellphone reception, no distractions, we had the company of nature and nights with skies full of shooting stars. It was pretty magical. We then went to the Gili Islands for a few days of scuba diving, yoga and sitting on the beach doing nothing but sipping on coconuts. That was pretty relaxing too.

Everyone in business should read this book:
“Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office” by Lois P. Frankel and “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg. Essential reads for every working woman and/or man who wants to know how to support the working women in their life.

Shameless plug for your business:
I am a TV commercial and print producer that can plug into an existing advertising agency or brand team to produce their communication needs. Many advertising agencies these days are scaling down so they have creative directors and account services but may not have an in-house producer, so I can fill that gap by becoming a part of the existing agency team. For brands that want to produce content directly without involving an agency, I can also bridge the gap by bringing my production knowledge in-house and working as part of the marketing/brand team and liaising with the other departments in the company such as product team and ecomm.

How can people connect with you?
They can email me at [email protected]
or visit my website at mkimproducer.com

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Callum Connects

Renée Ballard, Owner of Renée Ballard Communications

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Renée Ballard runs a social media agency working with business women, helping them find their business’s voice.

What’s your story?
I began my career in PR/communications ten years ago in Australia, after arriving home from two years in Dubai. In Dubai I was working for Emirates Airlines as a flight attendant and flying around the world non-stop for two years. This really sparked my interest for how people communicate. I started out as a community manager for an online advertising company, then moved into the corporate world of outdoor advertising, managing internal and external PR and communications. After having a baby four years ago, I decided to leave the safety net of corporate, and stride out on my own. I now run a social media agency and I specialise in working with business women, helping to find their business’ voice so they can use social media to achieve their business goals.

What excites you most about your industry?
I love the open accessibility online provides. It’s free for businesses to get online and connect with their target audience. Twenty years ago, advertising and PR was insanely expensive and quite elitist, but through incredible platforms like Facebook or Twitter, any business can connect with who is looking for their product/solution. Social media is particularly effective for small businesses because they have the edge when it comes to authenticity and a clear voice.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’m in Hong Kong because I’m a trailing spouse. I know it’s such a daggy term, but I love it, it makes me sound so dedicated to my husband! Alas, we came to Hong Kong for my husband’s work. He’s the Design Director of Asia for an international retail design agency. We’ve been here for almost two years and it’s been a huge learning curve in terms of business and culture. We love the fast-paced nature of Hong Kong and the fact that everything is open late – it suits me perfectly because I’m nocturnal.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
That’s easy, Hong Kong. It’s the perfect blend of start-ups and mothership-sized institutions. I love the small business side, watching the collaborations between workshare spaces with galleries, networking groups and foodies; it’s a hothouse of creative partnerships here.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
When you’re are feeling scared about your next step, lean in and feel the difference. Is it fear mixed with excitement? Or fear mixed with dread? Always go with the former and cut loose the latter.

Who inspires you?
I love Tamara Mellon (Jimmy Choo founder). She has created multiple empires and she never stops trying new business models and pushing her limits. It helps that I love shoes too.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
I just turned 40 years old. At best, I’m probably halfway through my life. It makes me constantly question, “Am I where I want to be?”

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would have asked more questions to the people I looked up to, and listened less to the people telling me I won’t achieve my goals.

How do you unwind?
In this day and age, it’s scandalous to say, but I love sunbaking. At any chance, you’ll find me poolside, laying in the sun in a trance-like state.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Northern Danang in Vietnam. We were there at Christmas, at the foot of the mountains and it was beautiful. Heaps of wildlife and jungles and enough five star resorts that I was never parched once.

Everyone in business should read this book:
‘The E Myth’ by Michael Gerber. It’s an oldie but a goodie because it succinctly outlines how to transition from a one person operation to a global business like McDonalds. Once you see how important systems and processes are, you can recognise shambolic companies a mile off.

Shameless plug for your business:
Renée Ballard Communications is a social media agency that works with business women who are ready to make social media work for them. We create effective, powerful social media strategies that are tailored to the people who will be breathing life into them. We hand on heart promise to never use annoying, marketing buzzwords and that we value laughter above everything else.

How can people connect with you?
[email protected] or www.reneeballard.com or +85296670115

Twitter handle?
@ballard_comms

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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