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Startup School – The search for gods and generals – Leadership and Greco-Roman tragedies

I believed that we needed high-potency leadership from day one for us to attract talent, money, and customers. I was wrong. We wasted many hours and expensive international air time (four-figure MCI World Call phone bills during months of recruitment effort) interviewing and convincing candidates in the U.S. and elsewhere to talk to us, when we should have been spending the same time chasing customers.

To be fair, this belief was primarily driven by the fact that I was clueless about one of the most essential skills required of a business owner: knowing how to attract and convert customers to cash. We had money in the bank and I knew how to build technology but getting strangers to give me large sums of money to solve their education problems was something alien. I didn’t know where to begin. In my prior consulting experience, lead generation had been Omer’s domain. All I did, really, was take already pre-sold (by Omer) customers and convert them into large consulting engagements and loyal clients. Omer opened the doors, I did my technology-guru-slash-wunderkind show, and Omer closed the deal. At Avicena, the lead generation, prospect conversion, and sales closure piece had to be built, but I always assumed that we could hire someone and make it his problem, not mine. I was wrong again. In one sense, the “get leadership- in-place-before-it’s-really-needed” mindset was a simple extension of the get-funding mindset and it had a similar result; it distracted us from the only constituent worth our focus—the customer.

Here is how the rhetoric went. Leadership is about holding your own and your team together in good times as well as bad. Leadership is about difficult choices, self- sacrifice, and the courage to stand out and make a call when everyone else in the room has chosen silence. Leadership is about listening and accepting that modifying behavior or changing direction is a sign of adaptability and strength, not weakness.

Hence to do all of the above we need leaders with name recognition in place, and the sooner, the better. The question that I was supposed to ask but didn’t: “If you are the only person in the room, do you still need leadership to do all of the above? Why can’t you do it by yourself?” Perception is that more new ventures fail because of leadership issues at the top than because of any other reason. Interesting enough, the converse is not true. They don’t succeed because of leadership. In a new- venture setting, with just a few mouths to feed and reducing travel time to profitability as the ultimate goal, leadership is incidental, marginal, and sometimes irrelevant. Once you grow beyond a few mouths, achieve profitability, and can be looked at as an organization, the value-adding potential and contribution of leadership increases.

But in a garage with a handful of souls, you don’t need leaders; you need doers, followers, and managers. But then you haven’t seen the only- have-leaders-in place phenomenon—seven chiefs of x title in a seven-man organization.

Moral of the story:

Build a business first, and then go looking for leadership.

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