The importance of ballast to entrepreneurs

yacht via flickr James Qualtrough

In my book, there are two types of entrepreneurs — the serious variety who use technology and innovation to disrupt industries and deliver major impacts and revenues, and the lifestyle variety who have swapped a job at a corporate for a startup that delivers incremental improvement on a problem set that is minor in nature.

Lifestyle entrepreneurs often build companies that end up selling time and expertise rather than a unique product or solution that drives change. Their startups never build an escape velocity — often only generating revenues to cover payroll and expenses and not much more. Serious entrepreneurs are those engaged in building new ways of doing things by solving problems that have not been tackled before and if they are solved, will change the world. They make a daily habit of tilting at windmills — doing what others contemplate as impossible, or at the very least highly improbable, and delivering successful outcomes day after day.

Changing the status quo of the industry verticals can be a really exhausting and frustrating experience for high-impact startup founders. What drives the mind of the entrepreneur is the feeling that it is possible to improve on the status quo, the standard way of doing things, systems that are perhaps not completely broken — but are also not at their best. To retain a visionary outlook, an entrepreneur requires extraordinary resilience.

Resilience is essential to the visionary entrepreneur, as there are many forces that will position themselves to stop the entrepreneur in their efforts to succeed at their mission and build a better mousetrap. The incumbent companies that currently own the market will try to stop you in your tracks; copycat startups that pounce on the new paradigm you are creating, and think they can get to the solution sooner than you; business partners that do not deliver on service level agreements; potential investors that take months to negotiate a term sheet; and even customers that are not completely sold on your solution.

When you consider the depth of resources that an entrepreneur has at his disposal to combat these overwhelming odds, the lunacy is starkly apparent. In the initial stages, funding is limited to personal savings and credit availability; product process is limited by available skills and resources; business processes and technologies are being built as product development goes along; business models need to be innovative and are therefore unproven and difficult to forecast; all of which needs to be implemented by overstretched and overworked teams. All the while, investors, partners, clients and team members are all looking to the entrepreneur to deliver on the vision he sold to them on Day One.

An entrepreneur needs enormous self-belief and resilience to engage in efforts to overcome the internal and external challenges associated with a startup enterprise — so where can an entrepreneur summon up the strength required to succeed?

The secret lies in the concept of ballast.

Ballast is used in sailboats to provide a moment (internal force) to resist the lateral forces of the wind on the sail. Ballast is literally well-placed weights that balance a sail boat in both the x- and y-planes. Insufficiently ballasted boats will tend to tip, or heel, excessively in high winds. Too much heel may result in the boat capsizing. Ballast centres the sailboat no matter the wind force or direction.

Ballast comes in various forms, but during the last 12 months at GoMetro, I have codified them into six major categories: protection, connection, reflection, action, introspection and retention. All six major categories need to be present and fostered in a startup culture in order for your company to generate velocity greater than the back currents that will drag it backwards. For a startup to stay afloat, it requires the continual shifting of emphasis from one category of ballast to another. From day-to-day, a startup founder has to strike the balance between the different ballasts.

Protection — this is ballast which one can use defensively, which is why the search for funding dominates many startup blogs. Direct funding or a corporate “big brother” can provide security to a startup. It can also include family bonds and relationships that an entrepreneur can use as an anchor.

Connection — the rise of social networking coinciding with the rise of the tech startup is no coincidence. Facebook, Instagram, Waze — all of these startups have connection at their core. Connection has never been easier with the advent of Facebook login being built into every second app.

Reflection — there is strength in community and relationships which reflect an entrepreneur’s values, seeing ourselves in others achieved through validation within a network of fellow entrepreneurs. That is why internet-enabled companies forming an ecosystem is so important to entrepreneurial success.

Action — to achieve high-scale growth, a startup always needs to be in constant forward movement. Momentum requires unceasing action. But for a startup founder, continuous action includes hobbies, travel and experiences beyond just a startup company.

Introspection — an entrepreneur requires very high levels of self-belief and internal stores of resilience. This comes from an inner spirit of altruism, a heightened self-awareness of his weaknesses that need to be taken into account, and a set of principles.

Retention — it takes a tremendous collection of skill and experience to pull off a game-changing, high-growth venture despite all the counter forces that will try and stop it in its tracks. It takes a dedicated team with buckets of experience and knowledge, using the latest techniques and skills to deliver the anticipated value.

A visionary entrepreneur is one who knows how to utilise ballast in order to sail a successful course equipped with a very small crew that is building their craft as they go along. Only through the deployment of ballast can the entrepreneur brave the tempests of incumbent competition, the churn of copycat startups, the swells of government regulation, and the tides of customer acquisition and retention.

Image: James Qualtrough via Flickr.

Justin Coetzee


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