Founder and CEO at OpiaTalk | eCommerce Entrepreneur
Founding a startup is humbling. It’s impossible to always know what to do next, or at all. Part of what makes it worthwhile is all the learning along the way. I’m often surprised at the lessons I glean from the most unexpected of places.
Case in point: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Ringsbooks. Seriously. I strongly suggest everyone in business read them (or listen to them on audio book). Really, with how tough it is to run a company, it sometimes feels like trying to get the One Ring to Mordor.
What I really want to share are the nuggets of wisdom I’ve taken from Gandalf, the wise wizard (aka That Old Guy With The Pointy Hat). I believe that if Gandalf were a startup founder, he would thrive. Check out these lessons I’ve picked up from the venerable one:
1) First, get your team to buy in
“I'm looking for someone to share in an adventure, and it's very difficult to find anyone.”
In The Hobbit, Gandalf persuades Bilbo to go on a journey with him. Gandalf knows Bilbo is essential to his quest’s success. He also knows the challenges will make Bilbo a better version of himself. But Bilbo must decide for himself. So Gandalf presents the idea, making sure Bilbo understands why the journey must happen, then steps back. He doesn’t force things; he presents and encourages, then waits for Bilbo to come on board — to buy in. Then, once the journey begins, Gandalf makes sure Bilbo has everything he needs (namely, handkerchiefs and tobacco) so he won’t cast doubt on the quest and go back to comfort.
It’s one thing to get talented people to join your startup; it’s another to get their real buy-in. I don’t just mean your idea, product, or business — I mean having them march alongside you throughout the whole process. Their willingness to sweat blood through the journey.
Too many of us focus first on what a team member (employee) can do for us. We spend the first part of the relationship judging the abilities or output of people, instead of investing in getting them involved in the why, and making sure they have handkerchiefs and tobacco (or the right CRM and Dunkin’).
The truth is, the most important thing to do first is what Gandalf did — prioritize buy-in. How? Well, if you want employees who take ownership, they have to actually own. Besides not skimping on stock, bring them in with you in real planning and strategy sessions as soon as possible. Listen and take feedback. You don’t have to take all suggestions, but start with an assumption that no matter what that person does at the company, they’re capable of helping shape the direction.
Then let them shape the direction. They can feel when you’re actually listening, which has them feel valued and — you guessed it — buy in.
2) Invest in developing your employees
One of the biggest questions fans of Tolkien’s books ponder is why Gandalf chose Bilbo to accompany him on his quest. There’s no one answer everybody agrees upon. What everybody does agree on is that there was “something” that made Gandalf “sense” Bilbo was the guy for the job. And evidently, he was — he proved himself capable without Gandalf’s constant support. Or, as Gandalf put it:
“There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself.”
Entrepreneurs and business leaders constantly talk about hiring the best people, but we also know that merely having skilled people doesn’t always equate to a great team. The fact is, recruiting and hiring is its own art, and includes a lot of factors outside your control. Plus, when you’re bootstrapping, you can’t just throw money at a recruiter and say, "Hire the prospect with the longest list of credentials and experience.”
What you can control is how you treat and work with employees once they are on board. How do you bring out the best in them? What can you do to elevate their confidence? How do you help them recognize and utilize the dormant skills they have?
Gandalf did it by explaining the end goal, giving a lot of freedom to his “people” (OK, elves, gnomes, giants, and hobbitses), and holding the vision of the very best in his team.
The same is true at startups. Giving people the freedom to do their jobs — real freedom — is essential. Keep yourself from micromanaging everything by setting solid guidelines and stretch goals. There is a time to step in, but most of the time you just need to stand back and let people grow. It’s an investment, but one that’s worthwhile.
It’s also worth taking the time (and energy) to actually understand your team as workers and people. The better you know them, the better you can help them tap their skills and potential. Investing in employee development doesn’t just mean taking them to trade shows; it’s means truly getting to know them, and calling out the skills and attributes you see in them (especially those they may not yet see in themselves).
3) Face overwhelming odds with grace
Gandalf led a lot journeys full of crazy obstacles (dragons, anyone?), but he was also a hell of a pep talker.
What this means, really, is that he never gave up. Even when things seemed as dark as Mount Doom itself, he kept going, and somehow encouraged others to do the same.
This may sound like a cliche, but it’s relevant — especially to startups. A quick search will tell you that not many founder-cum-CEOs succeed. I have slept in the belly of uncertainty many times already, and if I let this statistic get to me — if you let the statistic that 9 out of 10 startups fail get to you — then it’s easy to feel like giving up.
But while most startups fail, a fraction don’t. And things only end when you quit. When a problem comes and you see the end, it means the only real outcome you anticipate is failure. No matter what happened in Middle Earth, at no point did Gandalf say, “Ah, the hell with it. Let’s just throw in the towel instead of The Ring.”
In other words, problems that may at first seem insurmountable can be viewed as challenges: What if there were a way to solve this? What would it be? What are the ways? It takes great courage to not be bogged down by enormous snags, but it can help to ask that age-old question: “What Would Gandalf Do?” #WWGD
Startup life is not for the thin-skinned. But while it might sound trite, I really do feel like I’m being forged into something greater. What about you? Do you agree that Gandalf would be a good startup founder? Have you found business lessons in the oddest places? Write about them in the comments below. I’d love to hear your stories.