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  • Writer's picturePaolo Pironi

Company Strategy: Why 90% Of Startups Blow It And How To Get It Right

Startup Leaders hold the super important task of deciding the direction of the company. It is paramount to get this step right. Whenever I had the opportunity to look closely at specific startups that failed, the main reason for failure was always that either:

  • the company direction wasn’t set right, or

  • the company direction wasn’t correctly followed

In startups and business in general, setting and following company direction is a matter of life and death.

For the leaders I work with, setting the company direction is always an uncomfortably exciting experience. It’s flattering to choose the destiny of your investors’ money and of your employees, but it’s also very difficult. Formulating the company direction on paper feels good at first, but then the acid test of reality rarely pans out as intended. Typical undesirable outcomes include:

  • Your employees don’t fully understand your company direction (here’s an easy test: ask your employees to repeat your company direction by heart)

  • Your employees continually question your company direction

  • Your Board wants you to modify your company direction

  • YOU continually second guess your company direction

If your startup is suffering from these symptoms, you’re not alone. Most startups have these issues and don’t know why nor how to fix them. What’s worse, these issues are often the precursors to failure...

That’s why today I’m introducing my method for setting company direction. It’s proven to work by research and by my own experience with my 1:1 executive coaching clients.

Let’s begin...

Define the goal

The goal is to state the company direction concisely and unequivocally, i.e. leaving no confusion. (For more background on an invisible mistake that makes leaders express themselves unclearly, read about “the colour of the horse” in this other article)

No, I’m not advocating micro-management: you want to give your team full autonomy in deciding HOW they will pursue their objectives (and that will be the topic of future articles). Here we’re deciding WHAT they should pursue, and it will need to be crystal clear or the rest of the management chain will fall apart, inflating your stress levels as your company stagnates or declines. So let’s do a great job at setting the direction and avoid the doomsday scenario down the line, shall we?

Here’s your goal: To express your entire company direction in 3-5 semi-permanent Strategic Imperatives.

Simple, isn’t it? Before we dive into exactly how to accomplish that, let’s define what a Strategic Imperative is.

What are GOOD Strategic Imperatives?

What do I mean by Strategic Imperative? A few examples:

  • Maximise profitability

  • Delight customers

  • Dominate X niche

  • Expand into Y niche

  • Launch in new Country Z

  • Reduce environmental impact

  • Champion privacy and security

  • etc.

As you can see, these goals are high-level and don’t get into any detail as to HOW we will achieve them. For example, what does “Dominate a niche” mean: to acquire 2x as many clients in the niche? To develop a new product that the niche really wants? To be seen in all magazines that the niche reads? I’ll address questions such as these in later articles, which will explain how to effectively cascade the Strategic Imperatives to Department Priorities and into Individual KPIs (subscribe here if you don’t want to miss these future articles!)

Strategy is choice. In the words of legendary P&G CEO Adam Lafley, “Strategy can seem mystical and mysterious. It isn't. It is easily defined. It is a set of choices about winning. Again, it is an integrated set of choices that uniquely positions the firm in its industry so as to create sustainable advantage and superior value relative to the competition.”

The Strategic Imperatives express your choice as to WHAT your company will pursue. To choose the WHAT, you will need a good grasp of the WHY: WHY these goals are worth pursuing and WHY other goals aren’t.

Getting to the true WHY isn’t easy for anybody: it certainly wasn’t for me when I had to do it for my companies. Lots of angst, second guessing, and sleepless nights.

And we were the lucky ones who eventually got it right! As I mentioned earlier, I’ve encountered companies who didn’t have a rigorous method for setting company direction and failed as a direct result. When company direction is set wrongly or pursued wrongly, waiting until later to adopt a good process might be too late.

That’s why I decided to research a reliable method. I read books, adapted what I liked to fit my reality, trialled the methods, iterated. I finally landed on the 3-step method that I teach my clients and that I will publish in next week’s blog post. You can subscribe here if you don’t want to miss it. See you next week!

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