The Soul of a Start-up

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Ever had an Entrepreneurial romance?

The language of business often sounds like the language of love. The 30-year media sample at the heart of The Entrepreneurial Myth revealed the romance of business creation. Entrepreneurs are courted, wooed and seduced; advisors chaperone deals, mergers become nuptials. Beyond newspaper semantics, you might feel a pinch of pleasure when you collect the keys to a new office or a spike of adrenaline when a client wants you. These moments nod to the invisible emotional core of great business.

Instinctively, founders know these moments prove business is more than the sum of people, strategy and revenue. Start-ups are stitched together with spirit and soul.

If you seek recognition of this “essential, intangible something” in your business, or the relief of knowing other founders feel the same, read Ranjay Gulati’s The Soul of a Start-Up in Harvard Business Review. “Company founders sense its presence. So do early employees and customers,” says Gulati. “It inspires people to contribute their talent, money, and enthusiasm and fosters a sense of deep connection and mutual purpose. As long as this [organizational] spirit persists, engagement is high and start-ups remain agile and innovative, spurring growth. But when it vanishes, ventures can falter, and everyone perceives the loss – something special is gone.” Not to be confused with culture, Gulati proposes we stubbornly protect the emotional core of our businesses by prioritising three things:

  1. Business intent or an “animating purpose” to make history and be part of something bigger. Gulati’s research saw business intent edge into the existential. It defines why we might get out of bed, why we work as hard as we do.

  2. Customer connection or that intimate understanding of who your business serves and what they really think and feel. 

  3. Employee experience or the ability to give colleagues a voice and a choice through that seductive start-up mix of creativity and autonomy.

Intent, connection and experience can’t be bound by a spreadsheet square. But you know when they are missing.

It’s not you, it’s me

“That’s when I knew it was over,” shares a founder in The Entrepreneurial Myth. “A project delivering 360 degree feedback revealed a bitter truth. I went through the motions, of course. I projected the results on the glass wall of the conference room. I tried to talk to the team about the sale, about growth and opportunity, but I was hurt and self-conscious. Those with me from the beginning were already interviewing elsewhere. It was time to wish the new partners every happiness.”

If ownership of a business changes, so does its loves and loyalties. Despite this, many VC and private equity firms discount the emotional core of an organization as either an illusion or irrelevance. Only later, hard-won dollars are spent trying to recover the original ‘entrepreneurial mindset’. Defending organizational spirit seems to help secure the long term success of deals, industries and economies.

Gulati’s research is a timely reminder to embrace intangible value in an imperfect market. And to enjoy the courtship while it lasts.