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How to Align Your Startup Team for Execution



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 Everyone knows that a 20-page business plan is obsolete the moment it is written.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.


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.”


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.


Women on Top in Tech – Dawn Dickson, Founder and CEO of PopCom, Inc. and Founder of Flat Out of Heels



(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Dawn Dickson is the Founder and CEO of PopCom, Inc. (formerly Solutions Vending, Inc.), the company behind PopCom Kiosks and the PopCom API, which provides a software solution to make vending machines more intelligent. She created the company after her own struggles to find vending machines that could sell her roll-up flat products, Flat Out of Heels, at high-traffic areas like airports.  She was awarded First place in the PowerMoves NOLA Big Break pitch Competition and second place in the 2016 SBA Innovate Her Challenge.

What makes you do what you do? 
I love solving big problems and working with amazing people to get it done.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
After working in the vending industry for three years selling Flat Out of Heels in vending machines in airports and nightclubs, I was frustrated with the lack of data I was able to collect from my hardware. I also wanted more engaging and interactive experiences for my customers and after speaking with several retailers they felt the same way. That is when I decided to focus on PopCom and developing a software solution to solve the data problem in self-service retail.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)? 
The fact that I am not the usual, leadership demographic is the main reason why I was up for the challenge. The industry is in need of a change and I believe someone with a unique and different perspective and experience is needed. I look forward to collaborating with the industry leaders and veterans to build a product that everyone loves and finds value in.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work? How did you make a match if you did, and how did you end up being mentored by him/her?
I am involved in several different industries and sectors – retail, self-service retail, hardware, software…so I have to learn a lot of information quickly.  There are several people that I look up to, follow their career, and seek advice from. I was fortunate to be able to participate in some of the country’s top accelerator and entrepreneurship development programs, including Techstars, Canopy Boulder, and the BIxel Exchange – the mentorship and network I gained from these programs has been invaluable and very instrumental in our progress.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent? 
I have learned that spotting talent takes time, it takes patience, and building relationships with people and networks to meet new people, most of my connections come from introductions. I focus on finding the right fit for the company culture, there is a lot of great talent out there, but the culture is different, I want us to be on the same wavelength. I am fortunate to have met some great people through the programs I was in that came on as mentors, advisors, and eventually full time team members. I take time to get to know my team individually and understand what their personal goals and ambitions are, ask them what their dream job looks like, understand their needs so they can be happy at work and be fulfilled. I believe in self-care and making mental health a priority, if a person is good within themselves they radiate positivity and are more productive.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
I am a black woman so I am diversity. Naturally, we attract people we can relate to and have things in common, so I found that my team was heavily female and my diversity initiative was finding more men…when I thought about it I found it funny. Now I have a balanced team of men and women from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives which is exciting.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb? 
To be a great leader you have to be a team player, my rule is I never ask someone to do something that I would not do myself. I also have a rule to give the team the freedom and flexibility to work when and how they are most productive. That means some of us working different hours and being in the office different days, but happy team builds the dream!

Advice for others?
My advice is never give up if you believe in it. I started my company selling shoes in vending machines in 2011, it took me 7 years, a few failed hardware attempts, and many people telling me it would not work because the market was not ready. I was patient and what I believed would happen is happening. In May PopCom is bringing the PopShop to market, a next gen smart vending machine to sell and sample products. Our API will be ready in July and for the first time vending machine and kiosk owners can understand their conversion rates and have the level of data and analytics available that eCommerce stores have, but better. It has been a long journey and I feel it is just getting started, but I am only here because I never gave up.

If you’d like to get in touch with Dawn Dickson, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn:

To learn more about PopCom, please click here.

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Callum Connects

Elaine Zhou, Co-Founder of China Women Equipping Center



Elaine went on a journey of self discovery and once she knew her true self she could be successful in her own business.

What’s your story?
I am very proud of where I came from and I am grateful for where I am living and working today. Singapore is my adopted home and it is my aim to always contribute to and serve this country and its people.
Twelve years ago, I moved to Singapore for an internship opportunity. I was twenty one years old and I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t speak English, I didn’t understand the culture or the customs. Everything was new and strange to me. Everything was difficult, but my parents had tremendous faith in me.
My parents have worked diligently on the family farm to raise us and send us to college. My parents had a huge influence on me. The important things I learnt from them are to love, to never give up, to be a hard worker and to have a can-do attitude. These are the qualities that I embrace in my daily life.

What excites you most about your industry?
We offer more than just training. Our business is a resource to be leveraged for transformation, improved teamwork, leadership behaviours, communication skills, relationship skills, coaching skills and increased job satisfaction and productivity.
Our passion and purpose is to help people grow as leaders and to create tremendous results by serving others well. We take people to daring destinations, beyond their imagination.
My greatest joy is to see people grow, change and transform and live a purposeful life; this is what motivates me to do more and do it well.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born in China and I have spent all my adult and professional life in Singapore.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore and China.
Singapore is a very sophisticated and systematic country. It is a structured and highly efficient business environment and people are generally nice and honest. Also, the convenience and diverse culture is a great advantage for people who want to settle down there, no matter if they are from the East or West. You always feel at home in Singapore.
I also like China because of its fast growth. The population and the market is here. However, it takes time to settle in because of the language barrier and the very different traditional culture. But you will also find it is very interesting and you’ll want to learn more about China. The people are nice if you know them well. It is always about relationship first and business second, and when you are in a business meeting, you really have to master the skill of “reading the air.” It is a skill to let people know and understand you; your values, your background, why you think in that way or why you do or do not do certain things. Doing business in China is like swimming in the ocean; it is an abundant ocean and it is full of risks. Always know your values and stay true to yourself and make decisions close to your heart. It will help you see things more clearly and get things done in a way that doesn’t violate your values.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Be yourself, Elaine.” That is the best advice I have ever received. It was a big ‘aha’ moment for me. It was also the moment I truly and honestly looked within myself. I realized that when I am being my true self, and not trying to be someone else, I am able to connect with people instantly in a genuine and authentic way. It is a great feeling.

Who inspires you?
There are so many people who encourage me, lift me up and challenge me everyday. My mentor, John Maxwell who helped me discover my purpose in life; Michael Griffin, for his passion for Christ which is contagious and Wayne Dyer, my spiritual mentor who passed away in 2016. Also, people who are living with a purpose and striving everyday for their dream, they really inspire me. My clients, mentees and students. When I see that joy and peace in them, that inspires me to do more and do well. My team inspire me, especially when they said, “Elaine, I joined the business because of you.” They inspire me to make it work for the team and the business because it is beyond my own self interest. I am grateful for having so many people in my life who inspire me.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
China is a big country, we all know that, and it is also an internet giant. Recently on a team meeting, one of the directors who manages a successful beauty business, shared with us, that everybody is on the internet, especially on WeChat. People are obsessed with online communities – for ordering food, getting taxis, forging relationships, connections and friends. Almost anything and everything can get done online. But right now, there is a new trend; more and more people want the “offline” experience. It usually takes one to two hours from one place to another in Beijing, but people want to make the effort to have a real connection with other people, to attend networks, seminars, workshops and business meetings.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I started my first business when I was 24 years old, it failed. One year later, I started my second business and after a year and a half, I closed down the operation. After several painful experiences and two failed businesses, I started to look within myself, and seriously and intentionally invested in my personal growth at the age of 28. If I could turn back time, I wish I could have grown a lot earlier. I strongly believe that the level of our success is determined by the level of our self growth and we are always learning, everyday. But I also understand it is not the only way to live. I also consciously and intentionally try to live in the now. It is a beautiful and great way to live. In fact, I am grateful for what I have gone through; the pains, setbacks and challenges in my earlier life.

How do you unwind?
I like to stay connected with nature. For example, taking a walk barefoot on the grass and smelling the roses on the street. Having a beer or coffee along the riverside with friends; reading a good book; hunting for nice restaurants; swimming or running.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Thailand – nice beaches, food and people.
Bali – fantastic beaches and food, great people.
Malaysia – Nice food and people, particularly Langkawi, Penang and KK.
Of course Singapore, it is always a place dear to my heart. It’s my home.
There are a lot of other interesting places in China which I am still exploring.

Everyone in business should read this book:
The Law of Success by Napoleon Hill
The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace Wattles
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
Tao Te Ching: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life by Wayne Dyer
Developing the Leaders Within You by John C.Maxwell
Start with Why by Simon Sinek
These are some of the books that truly transformed my thinking and shaped my values.
I used to read a lot of different types of books, from sales, marketing, branding and management to different business models. I found it is really hard to master all of it and I was not optimizing my own strengths.
Entrepreneurship is a skill to be learnt. But it is really important to recognize what we are good at and what we are not so good at. We can not be everything.
Entrepreneurship is a journey of self-discovery and soul searching. It is all about learning and striving. We should try and always remember why we started our business in the first place.

Shameless plug for your business:
The China Women Equipping Center, is something both my team are I are very proud. We have put our hearts and souls into it, to help women in China grow and transform. As a developing country and with the rise of China, people are not lacking in money, everywhere is full of opportunity, but the challenge is the civilizations, values and faith. In fact the Chinese government puts a lot of effort into improving and shaping the international image to ensure it is making progress. But people are still facing a lot of pressure, especially women.
One of our business partners who is runs traditional Chinese medicine retail stores, shared that 80% of his patients are female, and the reason they are coming to see him are anxiety and depression.
Our China Women Equipping Center creates a safe and comfortable environment for women to help build their values and characters. My local team and I are very passionate about our mission and purpose. Beijing is our headquarters in China. We are planning to take three to six months to establish our business in Beijing and grow and expand to other major cities in China after that.

How can people connect with you?

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:
Download free copies of his books here:

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