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The Growth Stage: Strike That and Reverse It?

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Does building a company really mean abandoning what made you successful to begin with?

You crushed that initial pilot. You raised a boatload of money. Users are banging down your doors. Everyone wants to work for you. No, wait, everyone wants to BE you.

So what next, you all-star entrepreneur you?

Some literature on the topic would lead us to the harsh truth that the skills you’ve built to date are now useless. Everything you’ve being doing, do the opposite. You cultivate innovation and creativity? Standardize. Your organization is flat? Add structure and management. You take big bets? Avoid excessive risk. Adapt or perish.

Growing a company is a different animal altogether than founding one, and it is beyond doubt that many entrepreneurs still fail at this stage. The company that was yours and yours alone becomes a living, breathing organism with a mind of its own. After a certain point, you run out of like-minded individuals to hire and you outgrow your one-room office.

But some entrepreneurs also persist through this transition from founder to manager and CEO. They do it without undergoing drastic personal transformations. They stay true to the ideals and personas so crucial to their initial momentum.  How is this possible?

They pick the right investors.

When you need money and lack for experience, it can be tempting to go for the largest dollar amount or the flashiest name out there. But all the money in the world cannot compensate for a strong working relationship with an investor who supports your vision and strategy.

Take the example of Ayr Muir: he understood that Clover’s business model and prioritization of sustainability may not line up with the goals of many venture firms. In the middle of a venture craze, he chose instead a path of measured, meticulous, self-funded growth through profitable operations. This has allowed him to expand Clover’s reach without compromising on quality or mission.

While this may not be an option for all entrepreneurs, the basic principle holds: all money is not equal. Don’t compromise on your core.

They brush up on their people skills.

Growth means change, and change means fear and disruption even in the best of circumstances. Time and again throughout this course, we’ve seen founders come up against the gnarliest of situations and the toughest of conversations — Tim Westergren of Pandora negotiating disagreements between his two co-founders, Cathy Slater firing and divorcing her husband, “Micah Brew” facing imminent removal and choosing to sell his company instead.

Managing your own neurobiology in these situations is tough enough, never mind the welfare of an entire company! And I won’t try to claim that anyone can be truly prepared for these situations. But you can do some things to mitigate their effects — not least of which is simply being aware of the impact change will likely have on a group’s psyche. Be sure not to compromise on your own sane-making habits — eat, sleep, and exercise — and above all, always have a plan for how to approach a difficult conversation.

They ask for help.

Strong leaders anticipate their blind spots early on and compensate by asking for help from those who know better than they do. Mark Zuckerberg hires Sheryl Sandberg as his COO. Larry Page hands the reins to Eric Schmidt during the growth of Google’s critical search and display ads business.

The counterintuitive part of persisting as a leader through the growth stage is the trust and delegation it requires. Those who look for support find it on their own terms without having it forced on them.

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The fact of the matter is, there is no recipe for becoming a unicorn, and the odds really are terrible that you will succeed in even becoming one one-thousandth of a unicorn. But I’m willing to bet that if you forge ahead without doing the above, you are bound to fail.

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