Exactly two weeks ago, the United States ushered in its 46th president and the clock on the administration’s first 100 days started ticking. What campaign promises would they fulfill? What changes would they make? What progress would they drive?
It’s a tough metric to meet — the bar is high and the time is short. But in many ways, it’s no different than assuming any leadership responsibility. There’s always so much to do in a window that flies by impossibly fast, and hindsight often emphasizes what could have been done better. In that spirit, we took the opportunity to ask three of our portfolio founder CEOs what advice they’d offer their counterparts in their first 100 days building a company.
Here’s the hard-won wisdom they had to offer.
Goal-setting is important
The idea that goals are essential is not a surprise. But it can feel a bit unreasonable to set projections early in a start-up’s lifecycle when you haven’t even designed or shipped your first product yet, Noyo co-founder and CEO Shannon Goggin acknowledges. Still, she encourages founders to be rigorous about establishing milestones for the short term (the next 30 days) and with the long view (the next six to 12 months) in mind.
“Setting measurable goals for yourself forces you to identify the levers of your business and think through your assumptions around each one,” Goggin said. “You need to ask yourself questions like, ‘What needs to be true for us to reach 100 users in the next three months?’”
The reality is, she says, is that whiffing on goals is likely — you’re going to fail. A lot. But that’s the value in checking in constantly on how your assumptions are holding up. “This gives you the rapid feedback cycles you need,” observed Goggin. “Ultimately you’ll move faster, with a stronger business because of it.”
Satyen Sangani agrees there’s no time to waste with regard to setting goals.
The CEO and co-founder of Alation recommends starting OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) as soon as you can but emphasizes keeping them simple. “Shorter sentences and fewer key results are better,” he advised. “Focus on communication, prioritization, and cross-functional collaboration with your teams.”
Move fast and don’t over-index on perfection
If goal setting tees founders up to make progress, the next step is to get moving. Alex Cyriac, co-founder and CEO of Lively, says let go of perfecting your product in the first 100 days. “Just work as fast as possible to get that first version of your product out,” said Cyriac. “Don’t try to perfect it because you don’t know how customers will use your product. Just ship fast and iterate.”
But before founders push forward, it’s important to get — and keep getting — a sense of customer or user pain points, habits and preferences. “Talk to as many customers as possible,” Cyriac added. “Make sure there’s a problem you can solve.” And although making customers’ lives better is the obvious point, he also shared some additional encouragement in service of shipping fast: “Do things that don’t scale early on – it’s ok.”
Surround yourself with great people and don’t be afraid to ask for help
Nothing great was ever built by a single person. The fact is, every founder needs qualified help. Sangani says a CEO mentor who’s at least two stages ahead and can challenge you is valuable. “You don’t always have to agree with them — in fact, it might be better if you don’t,” he observed. “But being CEO is a really hard job and talking to someone who can empathize and push you on your thinking is invaluable.”
Your team is also an essential part of the “professional help” category but it’s essential to keep the right people in place for the company’s stage. Keeping the wrong people around for too long is an energy drain. “You have to be fair,” said Sangani. “The best people aren’t there to make you feel comfortable but you have to honor yourself by surrounding yourself with teammates who bring energy every day.”
Anyone who’s ever led a start-up knows it’s not easy and having people who can keep things grounded and connected is critical. “The expectation is you’re going to build a multi-billion-dollar company,” said Sangani. “Most days you’ll get news where you fall short of that standard. If you’re lucky, you might get news some days that helps you believe you’re going to build that $10B company.”
That’s why you need people in your corner that can help you stay even-keeled during those ups and downs. It’s easy to both over-react to the highs and get too down during the lows; as a start-up CEO, you need trusted people, personally and professionally, to give you the good perspective that grounds you.
He also keeps his focus on the problem the Alation team is trying to solve. “If there are still people out there who have problems we can solve, then we have something real to work on,” Sangani concluded.
Founders, what’s the best thing you did — or the biggest mistake you made — in your first 100 days?