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3 Signs a Founder Has What it Takes to Scale a Startup During a Crisis

Dan Conner

Dan Conner

General Partner at Ascend Venture Capital
Dan Conner is the general partner at Ascend Venture Capital, a micro-VC in St. Louis that provides financial and operational support to startup founders looking to scale. Conner specializes in data-centric technologies that enable the future states of industries. Before foundingAscend Venture Capital, Conner worked on the operations side of high-growth startups, leading teams to build scalable operational and financial infrastructure.
Dan Conner

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As the COVID-19 pandemic horizon stretches onward and a return to normalcy appears ever more distant, adaptation is the only option. Founders must prepare for a lengthy economic downturn, a slower sales pipeline, extended fundraising timelines and a deeply disrupted workplace — circumstances no one was planning for at the start of 2020.

Simply staying afloat will be difficult from now into the foreseeable future, and scaling your startup will be even more challenging due to the knock-on effects of the pandemic on the business environment. How do you invest in additional capacity if sales and funding cycles are extended? How do you source quality hires without meeting them in person? How can you be sure your team engagement stays high when no one is in the office? And even more confounding, how do you proceed onward and upward when everything seems uncertain?

In the best of times (and particularly in the worst), the responsibility for growing a startup falls to the founder and his or her ability to pivot. This is evident with the startups that have flourished during the pandemic, including home-fitness company Mirror and plant-based food producer Impossible Foods. Each was propelled by positive market tides as well as founders with the vision to see this crisis — awful as it might be — as an opportunity for growth. This unflinching mindset is fundamental to managing uncertainty.


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What makes founders essential when fortifying a startup against unpredictable risks?

Why founders matter

Founders presumably understand their startup better than anyone else. As such, investors often see the founder as the person most attuned to a startup’s potential and the obstacles in front of it. Employees can glean a similar attitude; ideally, they catch a founder’s vision and coalesce into a team, animating everything a company does in that image. No wonder people look to founders first to navigate fledgling companies through crises.

Beyond setting the right strategy, however, founders must also be an example for the entire company to follow. In practice, that means setting a trajectory for the startup that people feel excited to achieve. It means imagining what the future looks like and engineering a company to thrive in tomorrow’s world. It also means adapting to the unexpected with bold, confident responses.

Studies show that entrepreneurs are audacious by nature and more certain of their own ability to control outcomes than others. In crisis times such as these, great founders continue to ooze these characteristics, helping the entire startup feel assured and, perhaps most importantly, in control.



Key traits of effective founders

Many founders are full of ideas and enthusiasm, yet some propel their startups toward growth while others fizzle out. Here are some traits that distinguish the very best startup leaders:

Great storytelling skills

A startup doesn’t need an allegory to succeed (one that begins in a mythical garage, for instance), but it does need a great storyteller: someone who can communicate the vision of the company to employees, investors and customers alike.

Don’t confuse this with needing to be a world-renowned motivational speaker. The goal is to craft a compelling narrative, and this can be achieved without tremendous inborn talent. Like most skills, storytelling develops through practice. Take every opportunity to practice (i.e. conferences, interviews, pitches, follow-up calls) evangelizing about your company. Learn to seamlessly connect the future of your company (and whatever it takes to grow) with its history and founding principles.

A strong sense of foresight

If the goal is to scale fast, promising companies need to stay strategically ahead of the markets they operate in. Thus, foresight is an essential skill for founders, and it stems from understanding an industry in-depth: the market forces, competitive landscape, technical roots and customer profiles.

Deep foresight takes dedicated time to cultivate, so founders must make space in their schedules to ponder the big picture and long-term arc of their industry. A great example of deep foresight is Zoom; the company set out to transform an unloved industry (videoconferencing) and was positioned to seize that opportunity when it suddenly arrived. Zoom was designed for the future, evidencing just the kind of foresight it takes to grow in the face of changing global circumstances.

The ability to adapt

Startups are born to adapt; the trajectory never plays out as planned.

Change can be challenging and disruptive, but effective founders are unfazed. They embrace change, seeing it as an opportunity to evolve and expand upon their first principles.

Startup adaptability is engineered. To build for adaptability, design operations that approach problems systematically and can be optimized for flexibility. And always criticize processes, rather than people. It’s also a good idea to have several parallel strategies in place to insulate yourself from any single point of failure.

For example, one of the startups I advise runs a barbell strategy for business development to ensure it is simultaneously working on prospects that will pay off in a few months and ones that will pay off in a few years. The team is lean, but can manage a number of potential revenue outcomes by proceduralizing commonalities in the work so no single person is stretched too thin.


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Key takeaways

Many problems seem insurmountable, especially those that many of us have faced in recent months. Founders shouldn’t underestimate the obstacles in their path, but they shouldn’t see them as impassable, either. The best startup founders don’t crumble in the face of adversity. They overcome it, one step at a time.

People can learn the traits of successful entrepreneurs, and very few people (even among famous founders) embody all of them without trying. Every founder can retool for unforeseen market environments. And right now, they must if they’re serious about scaling up a startup on their own schedule instead of one set by circumstances outside their control.

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