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A Jazz Band ... or Just Noise?
Imagine you're an incredible keyboardist and you join a new band. But once you’re in, they let you know there’s no set practice. This group of individuals are certainly talented, each a master of their instrument. So they book gigs, show up, and then… just start playing. But with no setlist, no bandleader — it’s improvisation, but it’s noise, not a sublime musical performance.
Many startup leadership teams feel like this. They have impressive talent and energy but lack mutual understanding and cohesion. This is dangerous when existential risk and distraction are constant threats.
It's crucial for leaders to get on the same page about their focus, purpose, and vision for success. To do that, you have to set in motion a practice to achieve alignment.
Document and share your founding thesis
If you're a startup, your team is likely guided by each members’ unproven assumptions, supported by signals, instincts, and maybe some first principles. It's common for founders to keep these assumptions in their heads, like a treasure trove of earned insights.
Writing these down might sound like your worst nightmare. And it has to be done.
Tap your co-founders on the shoulder, reach out to trusted early advisors, or bring in someone like me to help — just do it.
And then, invite your team in to scrutinize it. This move, while vulnerable — Ah! the emperor has no clothes! — encourages collective ownership and builds a stronger thesis.
A well-documented thesis will help your team identify the biggest risks and focus their efforts on the right things. It ensures an intense, shared focus over time, reducing the chances of costly missteps. I know you’re busy with the day-to-day. Set aside specific time to view things from 5,000 to 10,000 feet to gain perspective.
Start by answering these questions:
When we founded this company, what opportunity did we see, and why did we believe this company needed to exist?
What have we learned since then about our customers, our offering, and our opportunity?
Today, what do we believe is most valuable about what we are building — to both our customers and our company? Be specific.
What are the 2-3 things we need to absolutely nail in order to create this value? What must be true for us to achieve our goals?
To bring this to life a bit, here's a fictional case study:
There is a five-person founding team (with a number of teams behind them) working feverishly on a prefabricated ADU startup. Everyone will tell you they’re working around the clock, but it’s unclear to what end:
The Head of Marketing is working on a rebrand exercise
The Head of Finance is building complex pricing models
The CTO and Head of BD are working on a partnership to integrate a voice-enabled product owned by a big tech firm
The CEO is fundraising
Then, on a whim, the team reads this newsletter and decides to step back and land their thesis (below):
Here’s a simple template for building your own.
The above view is a speculative thesis. These assumptions are a great starting point for a debate. Check if your team shares the same understanding of the world and the opportunity, and how we arrived here.
A thesis is not a “strategy.” It’s a set of assumptions that precede it.
Use your founding thesis to drive focus and execute
Now, with the thesis drafted and agreed upon, you might find yourself curious about the following:
How important is that big partnership half of our team is working on?
How complex do we really need our pricing models to be?
Are we doing enough on the marketing end?
What is the biggest risk and are there bets we can take today to help mitigate this risk?
You should treat your document as a living, breathing guide and use it often for reference. Here are some other things you can do once you have your document drafted:
Update it as your thinking evolves. Your document is not a one-and-done deal. Let it be a hub for new ideas and bold bets. Work on it with your team to drive cohesion.
Let this thesis guide your thinking on goals and priorities.
Use the document as a tool for onboarding newbies. Distribute a neat, one-page version to everyone in the company.
The days of easy funding are gone. No more free rides for whitepapers and Power Points. Only teams that can execute will stand out and survive.
Most people think about "execution" as going heads-down and shipping products or closing deals. That’s not enough. You also have to:
Stay grounded on a thesis and work as a team to get smarter over time.
Say no to countless distractions and focus on making the right few bets.
Bring in and properly utilize new skill sets to expand the team's capabilities over time.
It’s always worth the time and effort to get and keep your leadership team on the same page. It’s key to focus on the problems that will move the needle.
This post was first published on the Awesome People Substack, with editing support from Julia Lipton. Join their awesome crew now!
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