Eyes way up in the sky, feet firmly planted on the ground

One of the hardest things for me as a start-up CEO was striking the balance between “selling” the big vision while remaining maniacally focused on the details. Sometimes it seemed as though everyone wanted to hear a different story – customers, employees, candidates, investors (especially those on opposite coasts!). My partner Eric put it best when he said, “keep your eyes way up to the sky, and your feet firmly planted on the ground.”  My colleague Gaurav points out that most founders give the “big picture” vision to external parties but do much less so internally. Founders often forget that teams need to be reminded of the broad company vision to keep morale high and turnover low.

Eyes way up in the sky

The startup CEO has to capture the imagination. I have found that most start-up meetings require “up in the sky” messaging. Like the coming attraction to a movie, the entrepreneur should confidently state a bold (but believable) statement of the future. The vision should be a couple of years out, not one, but not ten. Every employee or prospective investor should leave a meeting able to articulate the vision of the company.

When it comes to customer presentations and tradeshows, the same rules apply with a slight tweak in messaging to reflect their market knowledge. At Brontes, we started sales pitches by saying “imagine a day when dentistry is digitized like music or photography.” Potential customers (dentists) would nod in agreement. It was a hard vision to deny and we would spend the rest of the pitch addressing why we’d be the ones to do it.

Feet firmly planted on the ground

The details support the overall vision. Once you’ve compelled the audience by describing a future state, the key is to convince that you have the plan and ability to get there.  Those of us that have started ventures know how hard it is and that most businesses are built brick by brick.

Early stage company CEOs have to shown deep comprehension and appreciation of the product and tech. CEOs should be conversant on what technology platform a given product is built on, aware of the development schedule (and how far ahead/behind the project is) and he/she must be able to demo the product. At Sample6, I spent time in the lab trying to learn how a competitive product worked. I spent time at customer sites. I’d come back with real-world anecdotes about why the product needed to be made easier to use or ideas on how to pitch it differently. Most importantly, the quickest way to lose credibility with an engineering team is to seem removed from details or unappreciative of the complexity of their work. This is heightened when times are tough.

The start-up CEO is both a general and field marshall. The challenge is balancing these two roles – internally and externally.

2 thoughts on “Eyes way up in the sky, feet firmly planted on the ground

  1. Micah: I couldn’t agree more. We have configured http://www.FirstGrowthVN.com in a way that recognizes these fundamental issues (a) demo day is a dual edged sword (great if your timing and fundraising needs happen to coincide), (b) mentoring is both exhausting (when done properly) and unnatural — true mentorship requires a chemistry between the parties and sustained and valuable contact. That can’t be forced. Also, the proliferation of Accelerators pursuing the same model has led to greater exhaustion among mentors and startups. For these, and other reasons, FirstGrowthVN has remained as follows (a) we don’t charge or take equity, (b) we don’t have a demo day and (c) it is more of a group coming together/community building than mentor pair-up model.
    See more in what was published by WSJ Accelerators here a few days ago: http://blogs.wsj.com/accelerators/2013/08/22/ed-zimmerman-quietly-providing-value/

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