High-Impact Entrepreneurship

Fred Wilson: How to be in business forever

Reprinted from A VC. Original article here.

By Fred Wilson

I will be doing office hours today at 6pm eastern. You can watch them here on this link. If you want to submit questions for office hours, you can do that here. Just like last week, I will review a few business model canvas projects and then will answer questions for the rest of the office hours.

This week I’d like to talk about company culture and how it impacts sustainability. If you want to be in business forever, you need to build a culture that sustains the business. I talked a lot about this in a post on culture a while back. You should give that a read as part of the assigned reading for this course. Here is the money quote from that post:

“Companies are not people. But they are comprised of people. And the people side of the business is harder and way more complicated than building a product is. You have to start with culture, values, and a commitment to creating a fantastic workplace. You can’t fake these things. They have to come from the top. They are not bullshit. They are everything. There will be things that happen in the course of building a business that will challenge the belief in the leadership and the future of the company. If everyone is a mercenary and there is no shared culture and values, the team will blow apart. But if there is a meaningful culture that the entire team buys into, the team will stick together, double down, and get through those challenging situations.”

I bumped into a friend last week who works at a company that is going through a difficult time right now. I asked him about the “talent drain” that is going on in his company. He said “the ones who were in it for only the money are long gone, the doubters are gone now too, and we are left with the true believers now.”
I thought to myself that the mistake the CEO of that company made was bringing the mercenaries and doubters into the company in the first place and allowing them to stay.

Mercenaries have no place in your company and your culture. Doubters are a bit different. You certainly don’t want to create a culture of “yes maam” in your company. So some doubting is healthy. But it should be out in the open. The doubts should be expressed upfront and they should be discussed and debated. But once the decisions have been made, everyone needs to get behind them. Ongoing doubting is not helpful to a culture.

True believers are required to get through the hard parts. And you need to be the leader who inspires the true believers. Watch this short video where @dens described what he did when Facebook launched a competing product to Foursquare.

You get true believers in your company by giving them something to believe in and someone to believe in. That is you. Even if you are scared shitless or bummed out, you can’t show that to the team. You have to lead if you want the team to follow.

The thing that you give them to believe in is called a vision. Make it a long one, a very long one. I like Bill Gates’ vision for Microsoft:

“When Paul Allen and I started Microsoft over 30 years ago, we had big dreams about software,” recalls Gates. “We had dreams about the impact it could have. We talked about a computer on every desk and in every home.”

A computer on every desk and in every home. That was a big hairy audacious goal in the late 70s. And it is exactly what happened, at least in the developed world.

The cool thing about that vision is it is drop dead simple to understand but took decades to execute. That’s a long vision that your team can buy into and stick with for the long haul. That’s what you need.

So if you want to build a business that lasts, you need a big and long vision and you need to be a leader who can inspire the team to believe in the vision and to believe in you. You need to hire folks who will stick around for the long haul and you need to be open to the doubts and doubters. But if they keep doubting, you need to part company with them. Don’t hire mercenaries. They won’t work no matter how hard you try.

Building a culture that can sustain the business is the most important investment you can make in your company. Once you’ve gotten a product into the market and proven product market fit, there is nothing that is more important than team, culture, and values. It is the glue that holds the whole thing together for the long haul.

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