A start-up these days is essentially a company that seeks to compress what has been considered by most businesses the ‘normal’ organic growth process of years into months, if not weeks or days. It typically does this in an environment that is not built for its success. It fights all odds and practically creates its own ecosystem in order to paradoxically first grow and then survive. Survival for a start-up comes as a consequence of growth, and not the other way around. This puts severe pressure on its systems, people and processes. Here leaders are born and killed every minute. Managers are burned to a degree not experienced before and performance is extracted from skills you never knew existed.
The challenges faced by a start-up are very real, and perhaps, a product of its very foundation and heterogeneous structure. Often germinating from a tiny point of an idea in the founder’s mind, the vision behind a start-up is perhaps the only clear (but not constant), thing in the entire ecosystem. This vision requires continuous tweaking and readjustments in the battle of survival and growth. New business ideas constantly emerge, and so do the new sources of revenue. The process is so dynamic that typical organizations would struggle to keep pace with such rapid shifting of gears and sudden change of direction.
Most organizations today are a legacy of the efficient military structures, where the chain of command is clear and precise. There are standard operating models with known enemies and directions. People know their roles, prefer to operate from a box and thrive on the predictability of daily routine. It is precisely this kind of structure that crumbles under the weight of start-ups who revel in breaking the rules.
I don’t know if these words are scaring you or inspiring you to join a start-up. The sword does cut both ways. In this high performance and burn environment, a leader is faced with a choice. He/she could either be the fast burn, quick on the move shooter with razor sharp instincts and quicksilver reflexes, or be the calm, composed, unflappable person who can see through it all with a certain sense of serenity. Often a leader ends up oscillating between the two, depending on one’s true sense of being. Both approaches have their own pros and cons. But one thing is steadfast within it all- a leader’s ability to manage ambiguity.
Conceived and formed out of a need for disruption, a start-up typically only has an idea and a palpable energy. Ambiguity is something that is at the core of it all and is in fact celebrated. There is no ambiguity on the sense of purpose, for the larger vision prevails despite the pruning and tweaking. It is the path towards the vision that is unpredictable. While unpredictability transforms start-ups into exciting workplaces, ambiguity can throw its leader into testing times. Confused? Well, let me put it this way. A start-up is like a living organism that has to adapt constantly to its self-created ecosystem. There would be times when individuals in the system would feel directionless by a sudden change of roles and responsibilities. Applying all kinds of permutations and combinations to achieve skyrocketing numbers would throw managers into a state of uncertainty, and perhaps even insecurity. Amidst all the chaos, it is only the conviction of a leader that can weave all the threads into a singular fabric. Plans might fail, numbers might fall short of expectations, but a leader’s unfazed vision can motivate the people in a start-up to revel in breaking the status-quo.
A start-up’s success crucially depends on how much the founders and their people believe in their vision. With such conviction, everything that appears to be straying away from the real goal, actually falls into place in the larger scheme of things.