Early-Stage Founders: Are You Thinking Big Enough?

February 12th, 2021

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By Kerty Levy, Managing Director of the Techstars Iowa Accelerator

Do you have the next great business idea? More than just an idea — are you working on building a startup that’s going to change the world?

If you know your startup is going to reach millions of people and make a difference in this world, you need to think big. Can you be a billion dollar company? How are you going to get there? Thinking so big can be scary, but thinking small can be detrimental.

When I talk with founders about “changing the world” and “thinking big,” I get a response somewhere along the spectrum between:

  • I’m passionate about, and confident in, my business, but I’m focused on our short-term growth right now.

  • This product is going to be in every household (or business) and completely disrupt the industry.

There are a lot of obstacles to thinking big when it comes to starting and scaling a business. And there’s no single factor that can predict whether or not a founder will think big. But every founder can learn to think bigger, even if it’s not natural.

Here are tips and mindset shifts I’ve learned from working with entrepreneurs — both those ready to think big and those thinking too small.

Know the Market — Deeply

To be a billion dollar company, and to think that big, founders must have and continue to deepen their knowledge of the market they’re serving. What do users want? What do users need? What gaps are there? How does this new product fit? What pain points is the product solving?

Some founders think small when it comes to their markets, and that’s restricting. If you only know your market in terms of your immediate environment, and don’t step outside your existing bubble, you’ll be stuck thinking small.

You’ll start small — by serving a specific segment of the market — but what’s your path from that segment to the broader market? If you don’t have an eye on that trajectory from the beginning, you’re bound to make short-sighted decisions that limit you in the future.

See Yourself as a Leader

You know your market. You’re confident in your idea. But can you picture yourself leading a company of several hundred employees?

As a founder, you are the de facto leader of your startup. You’ll hire strong leaders around you as you build your leadership team, but you have to see yourself as a leader so others will see you as one as well.

Leadership can be learned. If you don’t feel confident as a leader, you can do something about it. Learn from other entrepreneurs, listen to podcasts, read books, take courses, work closely with mentors.

Some of my favorite leadership books and podcasts include:

  • The Hard Thing about Hard Things — Ben Horowitz

  • Radical Candor — Kim Scott

  • 5 Dysfunctions of a Team — Patrick Lencioni

  • Zero to One — Peter Theil

  • E-Myth — Michael Gerber

  • High Output Management — Andy Grove

  • How I Built This — Guy Raz

Get Obsessive About Who You’re Helping

Are you thinking 24/7 about the people who will be helped by your startup? You should be.

You should always be thinking about how you help more people and how you can help them better. For many founders, it becomes an obsession — and it has to be during the early stages.

Being a founder is an all-encompassing role. You have to run hard.

More than just thinking about your ideas to help people, you have to talk about them. Share your ideas, get feedback, and learn from others.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard something along the lines of, “I don’t want to talk about my idea because someone might steal it.” That mindset has to stop. Ideas come and go — it’s what you build around them, and how you execute them, that matters.

Harness the Network Effect

Every founder has to network. It’s inevitable. Some are great at it, while others need to practice and get outside their comfort zone. In general, you should be so passionate about your business that you can’t stop talking about it.

Going big means growing your network, building relationships, and enrolling people in your vision. Get great people to join your team; join your board; or become an investor, advocate, or partner.

The Techstars Iowa Accelerator is a networking bonanza. Without even trying (well, it’s hard work, but built-in), startups in the accelerator network with other startups, experienced startup mentors, industry experts, and more. Accelerators have so many benefits, and networking is toward the top.

Work on You and Your Personal Barriers

Many of the things that hold founders back from thinking big are internal. Some mindset shifts can help you overcome common personal and professional obstacles and think bigger.

Conquer imposter syndrome

When you feel those questioning thoughts set in — like “Am I good enough?” “Can I really do this?” or “I don’t belong here” — that’s imposter syndrome rearing its ugly head.

It may feel like you don’t have the background of a founder and you feel out of place in your role. But let me tell you: There is no “normal” founder background. Every founder gets to where they are through a unique, often winding, journey. Take time to reflect on your experience, identify your strengths, and build on that. Then, get out there and problem solve, do research, learn from your mistakes, and ask for help.

To be honest, there is not much time to feel like an imposter when you’re launching a company once you actually do it.

Overcome the fear of selling

“I’m not a salesperson,” is something I hear consistently from early startup founders. But it’s just not true. Every founder has to be a salesperson. You have to sell to customers, but you also have to sell your idea to investors, employees, and others.

But you don’t have to be a used-car-lot, high-pressure, close-or-bust salesperson. You can sell just by helping people while advocating for your product.

Rather than think about what product you’re selling, think about how you’re helping the person or people you’re talking to buy what they’re looking for. Focus on the problem you’re solving for them and the benefits they will be receiving. That small shift can put you at ease and take the pressure off when it comes to thinking of yourself as “selling.”

Get comfortable with “No”

Humans don’t like to hear or say no. But founders have to learn to be OK with no.

Along your startup journey, you’re going to hear no — a lot. You’ve likely already had your fair share of no’s. It’s part of the process and can’t stop you from moving forward. Hear no from a potential investor? You can do all of your homework and still be pitching at the wrong time, at the wrong stage, or you might fit their thesis generally but not specifically. It doesn’t mean the next pitch won’t be the right one. Use these no’s to fuel your next pitch.

In addition to hearing no, you also have to get comfortable saying no. Not every opportunity, team member, or feature requested by a customer is the right fit or focus.

Say yes to the right things; say no to the wrong things.

Go Forth and Think Big

Take some time to reflect: Are you thinking big enough? If not, what do you need to get there?

To get the latest updates on Techstars Iowa and entrepreneurship in the Midwest, follow me here, connect with me on LinkedIn, and check the Techstars Iowa newsfeed. Or, if you’re ready to accelerate the growth of your startup, apply for the Techstars Iowa Accelerator.

This piece originally appeared on Medium.


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About the Author

Kerty Levy

Kerty Levy is the Managing Director of Techstars Iowa. Serving as a business advisor and coach for the past four years, EIR (entrepreneur in residence) at the Iowa AgriTech Accelerator since its inception, and most recently holding the title of Interim Director at the local Des Moines accelerator, she is a trusted member of Iowa’s startup community and expert on the Des Moines entrepreneurial ecosystem.