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Startup life in the time of Corona, Lesson 4: Roles and decision making

In this series, I share with you some of the key learnings I have had from my first 6 months of launching my first startup (Shiageto Consulting) and how those lessons are applicable for the challenges my business is facing during this pandemic crisis (and any business at any time in fact)

The initial challenge

"I'm not sure I like the name. I mean who even knows how to spell Shiageto? Nobody will ever find it on Google."

"What do you mean? Did you not get the metaphor about the Japanese sharpening stone? Plus it gives connotations of Japanese efficiency."

"Why don't you just call it something normal? I like 'The Strategy House', call it that!"

That is just a snapshot of some of the conversations I had with friends and former colleagues when I first set up my company. If it wasn't them telling me what to call my company, it was them telling me what my logo should look like or how my website should be designed or what tax structure my business should adopt, or....

Now, don't get me wrong, I was immensely grateful for their interest, their input and their support but ultimately it was my company so I made the decisions. And that's the thing, I don't just make the decisions on those things, I make EVERY decision. Not only that but, once I make the decision, it's up to me to make it happen. Suddenly, I'm not just CEO, I'm brand advisor, I'm website creator, I'm tax expert,..., I'm pretty much everything.

Until I hire my first permanent employee (might take a bit longer now, thanks Covid19) running a start-up means that I am every role in the company and I make every decision.

Whoa! That can be overwhelming, particularly if you've come from a big company where you have a whole team to do things and decisions are shared (heck in some cases, you're not even involved in the decisions if you're not senior enough). For me this was both super scary and super liberating at the same time.

Sure I would seek expert opinion, follow the data and do my best, but ultimately I could build what I want to build without compromises (for now). It's amazing how you get used to being told what to do and for decisions taking weeks to come about; so when that's not the case, it's a total shock to the system. Take this blog for example, in my last firm it would have taken at least 4 weeks to get approval, have it edited, be sent to a designer then wait its turn all before it got finally published. In my startup, this has taken approximately an hour to create, draft, review and get out there. AMAZING!!!

It's not all plain-sailing though, the downsides of being a one-person business is that you have a never ending list of things to do and decisions to make. Many of these tasks are not fun but are necessary (debt-collecting anyone??). In addition some of the things take way longer than you expect and can completely derail your business (take the time my printer broke just as I need to get a signed copy of a contract to a client or the time a large retail customer asked for a copy of Shiageto's modern-slavery policy*).

My solution to having an infinite number of roles to play and infinite number of decisions to make is two-fold: 1) I determine which are the more important, value-adding things that need deciding/doing and then focus on those; 2) I leverage expert guidance/support to get things done or to help inform the decisions I need to make.

For me, this is where the power of my network comes to the fore. It's easy to forget just how amazing all your acquaintances are and that collectively there are very few areas they can not cover. So, when I need help with contracts, I ask legal contacts of mine, when I need advice on company structures I ask my tax friends, when I designed my website I actually tested it page by page on former clients who I would want to target anyway (this not only meant a better website but had the added bonus of getting their buy-in to my business from an early point).

Sure, my in-tray is still massive but adopting this approach means I no longer stress out about it quite as much.

How has the pandemic amplified my challenge?

As with many aspects of my business, the pandemic has just made things a little bit harder. Ok, it hasn't necessarily added that much to the in-tray (aside from exploring the government loans Shiageto might be eligible for - turns out none of them is the answer), and has meant having a bit more time as paid work has dried up but it has magnified the importance of my decisions and roles. Even more so than before you don't want to make the wrong decision or complete a task badly and therefore miss out on what little work there is out there.

When it comes to tapping into my network, this has also become somewhat harder to do as each of them is more stressed so getting the same level of support that they might previously have given me has become a lot tougher.

Usually one of the key ways that I can make quick decisions or rattle through tasks on my to-do list (particularly when they are client-related such as chasing outstanding payments) is just to sort them out directly with no hassle. Now, in a similar way to how tapping into my network has become a little bit tougher because of the pandemic, I'm finding the time it takes to sort out client-related aspects has extended.

That is the way it is though, so I am adapting and innovating to see my way through this.

So, what are my takeaways from this learning?

On balance, rather than feel overwhelmed, I feel exhilarated at the freedom and opportunity I have to be involved in all the aspects of my business but to make sure it doesn't totally consume me, here are the 3 things I remind myself of when it comes to roles and decision making:

  1. Look ahead - this is linked to the old adage of 'those who fail to plan, plan to fail'. As far as this goes, at the start of every month I map out the key activities and decisions I will need to make so that they don't creep up on me. This helps me identify what the more important things are likely to be so that they get more focus. It also gives me ample time to line up the support I may need and start gathering any information that might help me to complete them. As much as possible, the aim is to pre-make decisions so that I can just pull them out of the locker when I need them rather than having to make them under stress.

  2. Use your network - I definitely believe that 'you are never the first person to have this problem'. Not just that but I could easily spend days trying to do something that someone else would only need an hour to do. So, the key is to stand on the shoulders of giants and ask for help as much as possible. At times I find it awkward to go cap and hand but I never failed to be amazed at how giving my contacts are and in return I offer my help extensively to those that I can. I keep being reminded that often the best solution to a task or the best way to make a decision is not to sit dwelling on it alone in an echo-chamber of your own thoughts but talk to others about it and you'll be surprised at how quickly things can get done.

  3. Embrace the learning - for someone like me, every one of these new tasks and decisions is any opportunity to try something new and learn new things. Once I realise that no decisions is irreversible and that it is a great way to unleash my creativity then fantastic, better that than being paralysed or procrastinating. Definitely since starting my own business I have dropped some of my perfection standards as I'd rather go with something that is 80% correct and fix it later rather than sit on something for ages; my level of thinking outside the box has also extrapolated and I am immensely grateful for that :)

So, those are my learnings about roles and decision making from 6 months at the helm of my own startup. As ever, I hope they have been of interest to you (if not, this is a very cathartic exercise each week for me). Join me next week, when I'm going to talk about ghosting and bread-crumbing. If you don't know what those are then tune in and find out..

* for the record I can categorically say that we only use ancient slaves - Joking!!

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