• Tips for Entrepreneurs

7 Things Entrepreneurs Need to Do to Gain a Winning Edge

By Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson
Top Dog

Here are some Tips for Entrepreneurs who want to stay on top of their game.

1. Find a Contest

If you find yourself lacking motivation to take the next great leap with your company, find a contest. If you’re only working for yourself, goals may get fuzzy—nice to attain, but the value in contests is that they have clear deadlines and rules; there are exacting requirements you must meet.

There’s added public pressure: others will be watching to see what you achieve. You’ll find yourself working with a new intensity. In a concentrated period of time, you’ll be forced to prioritize, then make choices that move you forward.

And this contest-driven momentum and clarity can persist regardless of the contest’s outcome. In studies of German biotech competitions, even though only one firm won, most of the contest entries had evolved into companies a year later. The contest catalyzed their dreams into reality.

2. Think About What Went Wrong the Right Way

When you make a mistake, it’s hard not to kick yourself and say, “If only I had not done _____.” That’s what the researchers call “subtractive thinking,” wishing the one thing that actually happened didn’t occur. The problem with subtractive thinking is that it doesn’t help you do anything differently the next time you face that problem.

Instead, try additive thinking. Mentally, go through a series of, “If only I had done this instead” thoughts so that you see how other approaches might have affected the outcome. The more possible scenarios you can come up with, the better off you’ll be. And this won’t just help you the next time you have the same issue; this practice also readies the brain to think more creatively going forward.

3. In General, Beware of Following “The General Rule”

One of the more fascinating studies from the past couple of years was a Harvard analysis of companies’ meetings. The researcher found that, in an average meeting, people listened to the person with the most specific knowledge in an area (e.g., the salesperson who worked directly with a client).

But in a high-pressure meeting, everyone listened to the Most Important Person in the room (e.g., the SVP of Sales). He had less specific information, but he knew the general rule—what the company/others did in similar situations. And most firms then followed the MIP’s “general rule” approach. This, in fact, had a huge negative effect on performance.

So here’s the crucial thing. The researcher also found that 82 percent of meetings she’d attended were high pressure. Meetings are held to solve a problem, meet a deadline, etc. And thus when it comes to key decision-making, companies all too often take their expertise off the table. Under pressure, they inadvertently deprive themselves of all that special knowledge and experience they had worked so hard to acquire.

Remember to use what you’ve learned.

4. Seize the Home-Field Advantage

I think we all know about the home-field advantage in sports. But the research says it’s just as relevant in any business setting. If you want to be the one in charge, have the meeting in your office. If that’s not possible, get to the conference room, restaurant, wherever—first. And don’t just hang out at the door, waiting for everyone else to arrive. Instead, “make yourself at home.” Spread some papers around. Rearrange the room so it better suits your needs. If you’re in a restaurant, learn the waiter’s name, order a bit of food, and get to work.

In lab experiments, professor Graham Brown has found that even small actions like this resulted in a windfall: it increased the value received by someone in a negotiation by as much as 160 percent.

The reason for this is that the home advantage has evolutionary roots. It’s about having a safe place to call your own—thus a win at home is more satisfying, a loss more embarrassing. And because of that, people in a confrontation on their own turf are more aggressive, more engaged, and more fearless. And the “away team” respects and defers to the home team.

5. Collaborate, but Only When You Really Need to

It’s fashionable right now to say that the key to success is collaboration. But the truth isn’t so clear-cut. The research says that, in many ways, entrepreneurship is a solitary endeavor. Small businesses are typically started by just one person working alone (or perhaps with a member of the family).

And if you look at it from the perspective of enormously successful companies, the game-changers are still often driven by a single person’s vision. Think Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Richard Branson, Mark Cuban, Warren Buffett, Oprah.

So don’t bring people on a team or into your firm just because “you should” or “you just need another voice.” Instead, bring people on when you have a problem or weakness that needs addressing, and you want someone’s particular skill set to help you resolve it.

6. Don’t Just Put People on a Team; Instead, Construct It

There’s an idea that everyone on a team should be equal; teams should be democracies. But research out of Harvard has found that teams work best when there is a clear hierarchy—when everyone knows each other’s role and responsibilities.

So before a team is created, determine exactly what each person will do and how that relates to the team’s purpose. Then, here’s the step that I think most of us forget. Ask: “What will each team member learn from being on this team?” (If they aren’t going to learn something, then they shouldn’t be on the team.)

And before the team begins its work, discuss all that—the team’s purpose, each person’s role, and each person’s learning goal—with each member. If everyone on the team knows what’s expected of them, how it contributes to the whole, and what they’ll gain from the experience, they’ll be more invested. There will be less squabbling over tasks and more doing the work.

7. Play to Win

When you begin a company, your focus is naturally on what you hope to accomplish, and you play to win: you’re willing to take the risks necessary to achieve this victory. However, once the bills start coming in, investors want to know what’s happening with their money, and clients and employees are worried about deadlines, and it’s easy to lose sight of the initial goal.

Rather than playing to win, you may find yourself switching to a mindset of “playing not to lose.” This isn’t a mindset of losers. What it means is that rather than pursuing the gains of the win, your actions are driven by a desire to avoid making any mistakes. You focus on the minutiae of running the company, obsess over details, and don’t move forward until everything is perfect. You start avoiding risks.

But risk-taking—a certain degree of fearlessness—is one of the entrepreneur’s great strengths. Don’t lose that. Yes, you have to make sure you have a quality product that gets out the door on time. Do that. But don’t let it prevent you from pursuing growth and new opportunities. Because a Six Sigma policy of perfect fulfillment wasn’t why you started this in the first place. Pushing yourself to make something happen, against all odds—that’s why you’re here.

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