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Start ups: declaring your vision, how soon is too soon?

How do start-ups fit in in the vision story? Is it arrogant or tempting fate to launch your humble innovation onto the market with grandiose claims of becoming the best, of changing minds, winning hearts and improving the world? Is it a risk to set your sights too high, too publicly when you are still in the throes of building an early customer base?

Absolutely not, says Chris Burnett, who has been the CEO or chairman of twelve businesses over the past seventeen years. Chris is contracted as Commercialisation Adviser to the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science to work with senior management teams and early stage companies to help fund the commercialisation of new products, process and service innovations.

“Vision and leadership go together,” he explains. “The CEO of an early stage business is its salesman. Unless they can get out there and sell their idea, no one is going to buy it.”

But are founders, entrepreneurs or brilliant innovators the right people to lead a team to commercial success?

“We have a tradition of viewing visionaries as extrovert, out-there people, but they are often introverted engineers. Yet they have a dream, they see possibilities that are very creative. That dream has to be bought into by the rest of the staff and be seen as realistic, yet a stretch to get there. Part of my role when I find a company with real potential where there are gaps in the management team, is to find a CEO that can be that visionary leader.”

“In my experience, you may also come across a group of people who have founded a company, yet there is no official leader. They try and manage by committee. That is okay to start with, but at some point you need someone to take charge and take the company where everyone can follow.”

Chris believes a start up with a clearly articulated vision and a set of values about how to achieve it, is better placed as the business gains traction and grows. It keeps things transparent and clear to employees and customers and acts as a touchstone for management as they explore opportunities and challenges on the journey.

It is also the expectation of venture capitalists and other investment partners. Pat Kinsel is an entrepreneur and venture capitalist with Polaris Partners in the USA. Talking to Huffington Post shortly after selling his company, Spindle to Twitter in 2013, Kinsel is blunt: “A company without vision starts from a place of ignorance and is unable to respond to feedback as it arises. Even if their problem plus solution is only off by a few degrees, they may misinterpret the feedback and pivot wildly. From a distance, these companies are easy to spot because they thrash from idea to idea.”

Kinsel goes as far as to say that the start-up movement “is dependent on vision”. “A company with vision knows their space and has identified an opportunity. They test the opportunity they’ve identified, and are able to formulate a solution based on their interpretation of people’s feedback against their domain knowledge [vision]. When their early assumptions are correct, the company only needs to make small corrections to reach their destination.”

Sarah Nahm, 29, is founder and CEO of Lever, an applicant-tracking software firm that helps companies reinvent their hiring process. Lever is an early stage start up based in Los Angeles and has attracted high-profile investors such as Marissa Mayer (CEO of Yahoo).

In an interview with Business Management Daily, Sarah Nahm describes the importance of setting a vision and communicating it clearly.

You want to set your compass in the right direction, have a long-term vision and articulate to others what the future may hold. It doesn’t mean the decisions you make tomorrow will be dramatic or drastic.

“I don’t think there’s anything a leader can invest in more than thinking about how you communicate in your team. My number one advice is to make the vision and strategy simple, memorable and repeatable. If every single person in your company can say what the company strategy is and what the vision is, and they all tell you the same thing, then you know everyone is working toward the same goal.”

Chris Burnett points out that vision is an important step, but only part of the picture: “You have to combine vision with venture,” he says and quotes former president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, “It is not enough to stare up the steps – we must step up the stairs.”

With acknowledgement to Queensland IML Fellow, Chris Burnett, CEO and Managing Director, Hamilton Collins

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