Think — and Communicate — like an Entrepreneur: Tips to Spur Business Success

Startups offer plenty of lessons on how to tip the scales in favor of optimal business outcomes, even for established companies.

June 14, 2023

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Think — and Communicate

Illustration by: iStock/huePhotography

Whether you’re a seasoned executive or launching your first startup, taking time to reflect on the mindset and communication that underpin your business strategies can help make your venture a success.

Stefanos Zenios, a professor of operations, information, and technology at the Stanford Graduate School of Business who also teaches Executive Education programs, focuses on entrepreneurship and innovation. He offers insights on pitches, pitfalls, and communication methods that can help your team — and your ideas — succeed.

Develop and Test Your Hypotheses

Innovators have to find common ground between the needs of the user, whether that user is a customer, supplier, stakeholder, or employee, and the goals of the organization, says Zenios. It doesn’t matter if that common ground ends up being a new company, a new product, or just a new process to meet internal goals or staff needs; to be successful, any new venture requires a set of hypotheses.

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Good entrepreneurs are comfortable with risk, but they find ways to manage that risk.
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Stefanos Zenios

You don’t know at first if these hypotheses will be correct, however, so you need to be comfortable with the uncertainty. “Good entrepreneurs are comfortable with risk, but they find ways to manage that risk,” Zenios says. Anchor your hypotheses in research, and then test them. What drives success is the willingness to do this testing, make adjustments according to the data — and then test again.

Upgrade Your Pitches with a Compelling Story

Pitches are all about the story. “Start with a good hook,” Zenios says, one that’s authentic and draws the audience into the conversation. It could be a jaw-dropping statistic from your market research, or the inspiration behind your idea. A good hook resonates emotionally with the audience, providing a connection.

Then, Zenios emphasizes that the story needs to progress logically. How does the hook connect to your market opportunity, your product, your project idea, or the new process you want to develop for your team? Do you need new funding, and what will you do with it? Will there be changes to existing staff or resource allocation? Figure out the arc of your story first, then build your presentation around it to increase the odds of a successful pitch.

Avoid Common Pitfalls

One of the most common mistakes entrepreneurs and corporate innovators make is not hearing their users. An entrepreneur might develop the product they want, instead of the product their customers want. Or a manager may institute a new bonus policy when the team was hoping for some alterations to the leave policy. Ideally, of course, the innovator’s ideas and the users’ needs will overlap. But where they diverge, the key driver has to be the user: A venture will never be successful if it’s not satisfying the needs of customers, employees, or other stakeholders.

Another common pitfall is letting the optimism that’s part and parcel of an innovator’s nature run unchecked. “It’s good to subject your venture to some level of skepticism, because most entrepreneurs lack the skepticism gene,” Zenios jokes. That requires introspection, and soliciting and listening to feedback from trusted sources. And then, just like with your hypotheses, it’s crucial to act on this feedback and make necessary adjustments.

Improve Your Team Communication

When assembling a new team, it’s important to invest time determining the goals and values the team will share. Decide how you’ll address disagreements when they arise, what your approach to resolving conflicts will be, and how you plan to manage difficult conversations while still maintaining respect and helping each other grow.

And don’t neglect the more practical aspects of team communication. Who’s going to run the meetings? Who’s going to coordinate with other departments? Establishing guidelines at the outset for how you’ll communicate as a team will make the launch of a new venture much smoother, and provide a strong foundation for ongoing coordination.

Put Theory into Practice

Here are some best practices for applying an entrepreneurial mindset and communication strategy to your business:

  • Get comfortable with risk, but also with mitigating that risk by testing your hypotheses. Adapt according to the data, then test again.
  • Perfect your pitches. Figure out what story you want to tell, then build your presentation around it. Start with a compelling hook that draws your audience in, then proceed logically.
  • Listen to your users. Your new project, venture, policy, or product won’t be successful if you’re not offering what people are looking for.
  • Stand back and give your idea or innovation a realistic, skeptical look to see what’s working well and what could be improved. Invite feedback from people you trust, and incorporate it into your strategy.
  • Consciously consider your communication practices. Establish guidelines and plans for managing conflict and having difficult conversations, as well as for nuts-and-bolts strategies, such as who will handle internal communications and who will run meetings.

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