Thick skin and strong gin: 5 ways to manage expectations in a startup
Expectations can be motivating; they're a great way to set standards and they provide a startup with a sense of direction. But when set without much consideration for reality, expectations can also lead to disappointment, restlessness, and even apathy. Entrepreneurs are constantly required to sell the dream to prospective investors, clients and partners to get the all essential buy-in from these key stakeholders to drive the vision of the company, but when communicated expectations are no more than disillusioned fantasies, trust is lost and momentum grinds to a halt.
So, how does an entrepreneur balance managing expectations with pushing forward and embracing the company vision? It starts with the entrepreneur's self-talk: positive self regard in a judgment free zone and a good auld reality check.
1. Give yourself time - a lot more time than you think you need
Startups are hard. Things go wrong. Pandemics happen! Why add the pressure of an unattainable deadline? I hear you; you want to get live but overreaching can lead to stress, panic and irrational decision making. None of these will serve you or your startup in the long run. In my modest experience, I've learned the hard way to be more conservative and iterative. A self-professed recovering perfectionist, it's been a huge weight off my shoulders to get live with an MVP (minimal viable product) and test and learn and iterate instead of pushing everything to be absolutely perfect within a certain timeline. Baby steps. Achievable deadlines. Small wins. Of course, it can feel like you're not putting your best foot forward by presenting underwhelming forecasts to a prospective investor but if you paint a picture that's too good to be true, investors generally have the experience to identify your inexperience. You're not making that deadline anyway. Give yourself time, be realistic, expect setbacks and even err on the side of caution.
2. Be ready to adapt
Setting expectations for certain outcomes can lead to rigidity, which impedes an entrepreneur's creativity, vision and potential. An openness to adapt as new information or ideas become available can help entrepreneurs to remove emotion from the equation and to reframe expectations in a constructive way. This can take strength and thick skin but instead of viewing shifts as failure or uncertainty, you can take a deep breath and consider your options in the context of your new opportunity.
3. Leave out the self-pity and self-doubt, it's not serving anyone
"It takes 10 years to become an overnight success" is one of those sayings that can help entrepreneurs to reframe expectations, especially when you feel like you should have achieved more, whatever more might be. It's very rare that all the ingredients for the perfect startup journey are ready to go all at the same time on Day 1. The idea, the team, the timing, market readiness, availability of funding and resources - this is just a small handful of the components that have to fall into place to get a startup off the ground - and that's not including intrinsic factors such as the entrepreneur's own vision, skills, belief and hard work. Don't let self-doubt get the better of you. Rather, accept that you're being brave enough to give it a shot, it's going to be an uphill battle, and the challenge is what it is - one big learning experience.
4. Transparant communication
Oftentimes, being realistic is considered the antithesis of optimism but that's not necessarily the case. You can still sell the overall vision without setting yourself up for failure, and you can still be transparent without underplaying your opportunity. Be honest with yourself and your stakeholders in a constructive way by reframing the setbacks and by providing solutions to any communicated problems. This transparency will take the pressure off because you're not trying to be something you're not, and in many cases, this openness will encourage a stronger relationship with your stakeholders, who may even be in a position to offer up alternative, better solutions.
5. Celebrate the small wins
I've played Gaelic football with my local club, Eadestown of County Kildare, for nearly 20 years where our long-standing Ladies Chairman, Gerry Kavanagh, has always encouraged us to celebrate the good times. Whether this was a win against a rival club, qualifying for a league semi-final, or going all the way to winning the county championship, Gerry has always reminded us that everyone has enough tough days in their lives, and that these are the days to celebrate and cherish. I've applied this advice to every other aspect of my life, especially in business. Celebrating the small wins is a great way to build momentum, to feel a sense of accomplishment and to sit back and realise how far you've come... look no further for an excuse to have a strong G&T!
Wait 'til you see - you'll reach those big expectations, one small win at a time.