I just returned from one of the most exciting business events I ever attended. I will explain what made this event so unique and impactful, and what I learned after interacting with 20 driven and passioned entrepreneurs for over two days. The group of entrepreneurs spanned founders with businesses between 500k and 25 mio EUR annual revenue and teams between 5 and >200 people.
How I collapsed and got rebuilt in a better version of myself
I usually never get stressed when I have to present. And I presented a lot before: I delivered hundreds of talks for rather big international audiences on various topics, with almost no preparation. In fact, presenting gives me great energy and goes almost automatically.
But this time was different…
I had to present my business and biggest challenge. In my case the challenge was related to scaling up internationally with the business I love so much. I started my talk and experienced difficulties expressing myself. I delivered a rather chaotic presentation and started panicking because I never experienced this before. It felt like one of my key strengths, -presenting-, suddenly became a weakness. And after finishing my talk, it still had to start…
20 minutes of very direct, very intense questions on the business and my challenges followed. The entrepreneurial audience spotted my weaknesses and started focusing on them. They applied radical candor: very direct feedback, but only with the goal of helping, not with the goal of hurting. My boat started sinking, my building started collapsing. It caused a very weird psychological experience which I hated and loved at the same time. I hated it because I felt pain. I loved it because I never felt it before.
It is known that direct feedback provides you with two types of pain:
1) a sense of inefficiency
2) emotional pain
But in this case there was additional pain: they start attacking what you love – your business and your adventure. They are at the core of your passion and drive. You think you’re doing great and your business is the best. (And every founder should). Out of love for your adventure you even hide your weak spots. But suddenly you can’t win the argument . I felt completely naked. It felt like being punched in the face without the ability to defend. I just had to undergo it.
To strengthen a wall, they first have to remove the weak bricks. Initially that hurts.
The observations and recommendations were summarised in a confronting but very powerful and accurate analysis. An analysis that’s literally worth a lot of money.
‘So Wim, what are your thoughts?’ they finally asked. I was a bit speechless, pretending to be strong. I started with thanking them for the feedback, but while doing that I became very emotional inside. I felt 100% human and real.
Lesson 1: Entrepreneurs are humans
This lesson might seem weird, but some people think entrepreneurs are ruthless and very strong, almost machine like risk takers. But nothing is more inaccurate. They are very sensitive humans, caring about the people in their organisation and having sleepless nights about them. They have fears and big challenges, and not all of the answers. They also often think about their families and how to balance the work and time with them. Yes they often feel guilty. It does not matter which age or which company size they have.
They all have very human challenges but not too many humans to discuss them with.
Lesson 2: Entrepreneurs are jugglers
Someone was mentioning the octopus: it’s like we have 8 arms to juggle a lot of balls. And none of these balls can drop, definitely not the family ball. Another important one is the ball related to personal growth and health. But then there’s also marketing, sales, finance, admin, operations, strategy, HR, …
And sometimes they drop. Depending on how they drop, there’s more or less damage. But dropping always means damage. And this juggling of balls, first by you and then by a team, is at the very core of the entrepreneurial challenge.
Lesson 3: The challenges are very similar for everyone
Here are some of the typical personal challenges founders struggle with:
- Work-life balance – causing worries about family time and relationships and personal health
- Challenges with shareholders – eg conflicts or sudden changes
- The search for your own role: eg being a CEO-founder of a 10 person company is very different than being one for a 100 person company. If the role changes, your tasks change. And if your tasks change, it may impact your passion. It’s a matter of keeping the focus on what you like and what you’re good at.
- Acquisitions and the related cultural/managerial challenges
- Hiring/firing challenges
- The quest for purpose: sometimes entrepreneurs have to rediscover why they started in the first place. Throughout the years, it might fade, causing problems in a later stage. Some entrepreneurs are in discovery of themselves.
- Growth challenges: what is the next goal? How to get there?
- Answering the ‘what’s next’ question: what to do after selling or leaving the business?
Regardless of company size or experience, I noticed all of the founders may struggle with them sooner or later. It was very encouraging for many that no one was in the perfect situation.
Lesson 4: the solution is always out there
Bert mentioned in the end: behind each of the business challenges, there’s actually a personal challenge. The good news is that this means we are in control of solving the issue. It’s hence a matter of identifying and diagnosing the problem and then solving it. The first step is the difficult one. And that was the real power of this event.
The Foundershub: a unique event with a lasting impact
The Foundershub is an initiative by Connexi, a company connecting a special breed* of entrepreneurs in an atypical way. The company’s mission is to help entrepreneurs overcome their biggest challenges. Each of the 20 entrepreneurs gets a full 1 hour timeslot for an in depth and direct discussion on the biggest challenge of that person. It is a very direct, yet very respectful confrontation.
This is how it works:
- The person gives a 7 slide, 10 min presentation about the company’s activities, context and challenge
- The other founders in the audience start a very intense 20 min Q&A session. With intense I mean: no easy questions, automatically causing some emotional discomfort and pain to some degree
- Each of the other founders individually bring up their observations and recommendations, which are noted down live, visible for everyone
- The presenter can then reflect and commit to solutions for some of the issues raised
*WARNING: don’t participate if you’re not an open-minded entrepreneur ready to be challenged very intensely.
Would you also be interested in this enriching and lasting experience? Visit Connexi or ask me about my experiences. I will participate again in October later this year. I will deliver a different kind of presentation, and I will be there with a great, detailed business plan.
Thanks Frederik, Nathalie, Bert, Conrad, Inge