I love working with high school entrepreneurs at LaunchX. Their drive, innovativeness, and gusto inspire and electrify me. Not only that, I am excited to see the great benefits they get from being startup teams working side by side with other startup teams. The energy and synergy that can happen when a lot of bright-eyed, hard-working teams feed off each others’ successes and ideas in a network of startups like LaunchX is powerful. The experience can be invaluable in terms of boosting morale, spurring technical development, honing marketing skills, and more.
But it’s not all sunshine and fake mustaches. There are some real and (negatively) disruptive challenges that I’ve faced and want to take the time to address. In no particular order, here are a few common pitfalls to look out for, plus some of the ways I’ve found to successfully combat them.
Groupthink / Copycatting
Because LaunchX startup groups work closely and are constantly interacting, there’s a tendency for some teams to want to refocus their efforts on whatever other teams are focusing on. Say one team decides they’re going to do a survey to better understand their customer base; next thing you know half of the other groups want to also do surveys because they think it’s what they should be doing (whether it’s relevant to their stage of development or not). Or one team wants to form their legal entity because it makes sense for their business because of their business risk, except then leads all the other teams to freak out about needing legal coverage even though their companies don’t have the same needs. Maybe one team already has a prototype, so other teams drop their market research and jump to build something physical.
You can probably see how this kind of bandwagon-jumping and follower mindset is damaging and counterproductive. Losing focus and direction on what your startup needs at a given moment is a surefire way to spin your wheels.
Luckily, I have some tricks up my sleeve to overcome this. I bring the groups together and project the logos of three companies: Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. I ask the students to discuss in their groups which company is more successful and why. A heated debate ensues, with a balanced number of students passionate about each. I then share that each of these companies is at the top in a particular category: one has the most users, another has the most revenue, a different one has the highest profit, etc. Then ask the group why we had this discussion and what it means. After a short silence, a brave soul will usually raise their hand and say “because we need to figure out which metrics and progress matters for our company, and not bother ourselves with what other companies in different fields are doing”. Bingo!
Internal Team Issues
Participants in programs like LaunchX are by default ambitious go-getters. They have ideas, they’re hungry, they want to make big impacts. While that creates amazing energy within teams, it can also lead to certain team issues and drama. Things mostly run smoothly, but from time to time, we have to contend with interpersonal and other problems within and between teams. Although it might seem like no big deal, it’s crucial to get a handle on any problems in team dynamics because team issues are the highest factor in startup failures. That’s right, most startups fail as a result of misalignment, squabbling and other problems within their teams. So, it’s very important to make sure that any problems get worked out and that team dynamics are strong and cohesive.
We try to anticipate and get ahead of any potential problems by setting expectations through a Team Norms Agreement. This document gives teams a structured way to briefly nail down their shared values and motivation, vision, roles and responsibilities, metrics and set expectations for their working style (including meeting times and rules, communication, and how decisions are made). This document is a great starting point for defining and agreeing upon expectations, but it doesn’t cover every potential problem that may arise.
One of the main sources of conflict among teams is different goals. We try to meet this head-on by making everyone sit down at the beginning and communicate what their individual aims are, then align the team around a shared purpose. For instance, one person on the team may be in it for the innovation aspect, while another is there to make an impact, and another is in it for the profit. That could lead to people over-prioritizing one aspect of the work over others and refusing to engage in work they consider as non-essential to their main goal. By talking about what’s most important to each teammate and discussing how that affects ways in which they will make decisions and compromises, we can help prevent potential issues where the team is not aligned on the ways forward because everyone is just competing to get their individual goal met.
Sometimes I see certain teammates building a bit of bitterness or resentment towards other teammates whom they feel are not doing as much work as they are. When that happens, I have everyone in the entire group fill out an anonymous survey asking them to state their % workload contribution to the team, and the % workload contribution of each of their teammates, without any names being named, to ensure honesty. When averaging out the numbers across all individuals and factoring in team size, the average amount of workload that a person thinks they are doing is ~115-120% of what would be expected for their team size.
We then discuss as a group why this is the case. Students volunteer telling examples of where they see themselves doing more work and making greater contributions, while not seeing the work behind their teammates’ final contributions. Sometimes they reveal that they don’t agree with another teammate’s approach to solving a problem or managing an issue. This happens most often when there’s an overlap in skills, and one person with similar skills and knowledge as the person who executed a particular project believes they could’ve done a better job using a different approach than the person working on the project took.
It’s good to respond to these types of issues with improved communication, more action-oriented meetings, more celebrations of milestones reached. It’s also important for team members to get to know each other, beyond just their business-related skillsets. Once they know each other as people, outside of the context of the program, it becomes easier to mitigate some interpersonal challenges because each team member realizes that everyone else is honestly there for the same reasons. They’re all passionate and driven and all trying to make the best of their experience and launch an amazing and successful startup. Plus, they’re human. They’re flawed and when each person is forced to be honest about that, everyone trusts each other more and works together from a place of realness. If there is genuine evidence that one person is carrying the team or another isn’t pulling their weight at all, the discussions around that become easier once they see each other as fully rounded out people, not just a means to an end (the end here being the successful launch of their startup).
Another challenge is when certain team members don’t internalize feedback. Confident, ambitious entrepreneurs often rationalize their decisions by finding the one piece of data that supports them, versus being open-minded to the 99 things that tell them otherwise. They’re prone to responding to questions meant to spark their thinking and challenge their assumptions by explaining and campaigning for why they’re right, or saying they’ve considered the question and found it invalid, instead of unpacking and sitting with the question to see what they might be missing.
Competition vs. Collaboration
Team Competitiveness is another problem we run into. Again, you have a lot of very motivated, passionate young people in a space with other exceptional go-getters. They all want to shine through as the best. But the value of a healthy startup community is that it’s collaborative and supportive, not cut-throat or ultra competitive. Those positive qualities and exchanges must be nurtured within the culture of the community.
We do that through activities like team sharing of progress and open questions and advice. We also have events like the Reciprocity Ring, where small groups of students mixed across teams post what needs they have within their business (a logo, beta testers, etc.) and other students sign up to help with these needs, regardless of which teams they’re on. We also make sure to have individuals share their awesome skills, quirks, and interests that are outside the scope of startups. For example, we ran a mock “TED Talks” event, where students signed up and did 5 minute talks on whatever they wanted. It turned out to be one of the most inspiring days at the program!
We also tamp down the tendency toward competition by not having any kind of forced rankings or “judging” at the final pitch. I’ve found rankings and pitch judgements can pit teams against one another and keep everyone from reaching their potential, because they’re all so busy worrying about being better than the other teams, not necessarily being better than they were when they entered the program.
This may be contrary to what other programs do, and some may bring up the fact that in the “real world” of entrepreneurship, startups are essentially competing with one another because any investor they pitch to will only be able to take on so many projects, and theirs must stand out from the crowd of pitches that firms routinely get. I understand that criticism, but think there is more benefit in a strong community where helping each other rise and succeed takes precedence.
Building a strong, supportive community also requires building diversity into the group. Yes, there should be diverse company types in a variety of industries, along with diverse skill sets that complement one another. But, there should also be ethnic, racial, cultural, gender, and other kinds of identity diversity among participants. The reason why goes well beyond the simple desire for inclusivity. Research indicates that diverse teams and companies focus more on facts, do better critical thinking, lead to more innovation, and have better returns than homogenous ones. We work hard to ensure that we champion and welcome diversity in every way.
Overworking and Undersleeping
There’s a common myth that to be successful in business, you have to work and hustle longer than everyone else, that working 12 a day, 7 days a week is the only only path. Not only is it not the only path, it’s not even a good path! Studies have found that people who work 70 hours a week are no more productive than those working 40 hours a week. It’s actually the opposite, since after the 50 hour mark, productivity declines dramatically and almost nothing of value gets done after the 55 hour point. Not to mention the many social and health-related issues that arise from overworking, which can sink startups as well as people’s lives outside of startups.
It can be a challenge to get energetic young people who are laser-focused on their startups to see that there’s value in getting away from work. So a good startup community culture includes opportunities to bond outside of participants’ companies, and to take a break from their missions. We put a priority on facilitating that at LaunchX, and also keeping an eye out for anyone who is putting in too many hours.
Overworking at the expense of sleep is another problem we run into, and while it’s easy enough to encourage people to step away from work for social activities, I’ve yet to find a great way to manage how much shut-eye the students get. They are independent individuals and because of technology can be working on their startups from their beds instead of sleeping. I don’t want to take any draconian measures like shutting down access after a certain time. Ultimately, I just have to hope that sharing the negative mental and physical health impacts of not getting enough sleep, along with pointing out that it makes mistakes more likely — while muddling the thinking needed to solve problems — is enough of a deterrent.
There are 3 strategies I have to help mitigate these potential startup team issues, in addition to what I’ve already mentioned above. Each is designed to show teams that seemingly small issues left unchecked can drastically impact their company’s potential for success, and to remind them that one of the overwhelmingly common reasons startups fail is because of problems within their teams. It’s meant to show them that without cohesion, unity, a singular focus, and the actual energy needed to keep the startup running on all cylinders (which means they shouldn’t be running on all cylinders 24/7), their chances for success are slim.
Investment Simulation – All LaunchX teams pitch to one another. Each individual has a set amount of fake money to invest in the other teams (they’re not allowed to invest in their own team’s startup). We tell teams in advance that a high or low investment doesn’t just reflect the strength of their business idea or product, it’s also indicative of how confident outsiders are in the team itself and how well they convey the problem they’re trying to solve with their startup, as well as the solution itself. After the exercise, we let all the teams know who the top “market cap” companies were, then message them privately about their particular quartile.
While I’ve seen teams sometimes rationalize their position by saying that “this isn’t our target market so they don’t get it”, many teams do recognize that there may be opportunity to adjust the way they’ve been conceptualizing their problem, solution, and how they’ve been communicating.
Mock Board of Directors – Each team also gets a panel of 3-5 mentors to whom they provide progress updates, ask questions, and with whom they develop strategies about what their next steps should be. This gives them a realistic perspective of the market through multiple touch points. It also lets teams easily see when the group is split, and therefore there are multiple potential paths, or when the group unanimously agrees on a specific point.
Teams tend to recognize the need to adjust if enough credible individuals agree. However, one potential negative outcome on the flipside of that is that some teams may feel discouraged from innovation that goes against the status quo. We address that on a case-by-case basis when it comes up.
Required Milestones – Another strategy we use to give teams a realistic look at how the market works and how they must work within it is to require them to reach a specific milestone in a set amount of time before they can continue fleshing out or engaging with their stated problem or idea. For example, a team may need to have at least 3 people place pre-orders for their product by the following week to prove that there is a real need for what they’re doing. If they can’t, they have to find an opportunity that meets a greater potential need.
I use this as my last resort measure, only when things seem to be really disjointed and not progressing, as it can be difficult to customize a milestone. Plus, it’s much better for teams to realize on their own that they need to adjust, versus having a change forced upon them. When a team has input on developing milestones, they’re more likely to agree to the terms and engage more wholly with it. It is also more realistic, as startup teams need the skills to figure out and agree on their own milestones in order to be able to cultivate continued success and move forward. Whether it’s done with input from the team or not, the ultimatum of required milestones should still be used as a last resort when it seems like everything would fall apart otherwise.
Finally, something I can’t stress enough: Open communication is the key to solving a lot of the issues that can arise in and among startup teams. It’s the starting point to any good solution and can sometimes be the solution itself. You’d be surprised how many problems crop up simply because people aren’t speaking up honestly or clearly or aren’t listening to others well enough. Fostering good communication is critical.