I lied in the title of this blog post. The steps to transform the geek worker-bee to entrepreneur weren’t easy. They were gut-wrenching, heart-stopping, sleep-losing, eating-disorder-inducing, agonizing strides. Each step was a sharp transition from the person I was before to the person I needed to be to run a successful company.
Why didn’t anyone tell me how painful the process would be? Well, in truth, people tried, but like many newbie entrepreneurs I just didn’t listen.
Entrepreneurship wasn’t easy for me. As I look back, there were three distinct phases of the transformation.
1. Changing my mindset from technician to manager and entrepreneur. In The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It, Michael Gerber describes the three equally important roles a successful business owner must assume. In 2006, I was a pure technician, happy when writing software and miserable whenever I had to deal with a sales call or, gulp, personnel issues.
What I failed to recognize in those early days was that for the business to succeed, I had to be more than technical. I also had to pay attention to the details of managing the business and at the same time be the tireless communicator of the vision. In short, I needed to be a technician, a manager, and an entrepreneur, all at the same time. I had to learn to embrace the two roles that pulled me out of my comfort zone.
2. Baby issues. A business is its founder’s baby, born of an idea and nourished with sweat and perseverance. In infancy, no one will care as much about the baby than the person whose dreams gave birth to it. But business success means growth and maturation. Much like a human child, the successful business doesn’t need to be swaddled and cuddled by its creator for too long. Like a human child, other teachers and caretakers will come and assume ownership of parts of the baby.
Giving up the baby that was my business was an arduous undertaking for me. Letting others handle accounting and payroll was a breeze, but I was a software engineer by training, most comfortable solving technical problems, and I held on to control of the IT department like a latched-on ferret. Looking back now, I could see the absurdity of the situation, the CEO of a 100+ person organization, spending much of her time resetting email passwords and fiddling around with websites. I held on to IT until it became painfully obvious, even to me, that I was doing damage to the company by not giving it up.
3. Recognizing I didn’t need to be the boss of everybody. In our first year of business, we hired fourteen people. I did all the recruiting, all the interviewing, and the hiring. We were all working on one big project which I managed; all fourteen people reported to me. I wrote professional development plans and conducted weekly one-on-ones. I was intimately familiar with every single person who worked for Trident.
As we grew and added layers to the organizational structure, I tried to maintain that rapport with the employees. I wanted to be the CEO who knew every single one of her employees. I inserted myself into the hiring decisions of key program managers because, after all, I was the big boss. Everybody reported to me, right?
All I was doing was enabling an atmosphere where managers were less empowered than they needed to be and employees routinely went around their supervisors and HR to bring issues directly to me. And I attempted to resolve issues on limited information and perspective. The situation was not conducive to growth or profitability.
One of my favorite quotes is from Lee Iacocca: “I hire people brighter than me and then I get out of their way.” It’s a quote that I took to heart. Removing myself as everybody’s boss did more to empower my management team than anything I had tried before. Program performance improved, back office productivity soared, and growth spurred.
The kitchen table CEO from ten years ago is almost like a stranger to me. I barely recognize her. But without these transformations, we would never have survived the lean years that prepared us for the growth years. And I’m a better entrepreneur for it.