The Founder's Paradox: How to Be a Visionary and Get Paid Now
"She with a plan wins." The best boss I ever had said this. (Often.) She was a mentor to me and her mantra became one of my own. I referenced this line in some of my earliest writing on the Aha! blog. The idea is not that product and company builders have a detailed plan for every scenario. It is that you have a goal-first approach that informs your actions. You know what you want to achieve and that drives your decision-making. It is your bold vision of the future.
The paradox is how to achieve your long-term vision while creating value today.
Vision is what fuels the best entrepreneurs. This kind of passion inspires people to join you and contribute to your company's success as if it were their own. A courageous outlook means you are ahead of the time. You see the future differently. The conviction to achieve your long-term vision is what fuels you.
But it can be easy to lose sight of that vision when you are contending with the demands of getting a business off the ground. You want to be sure that you are not leaning so far into the immediacy of what you absolutely must achieve now that you lose touch with the future you are working towards.
The alternative is not much better. If you do the opposite and solely focus on an ambitious future — you will not take the necessary steps to get there. Yes, I am talking about building a profitable business. You need to make choices that create immediate value if you want to grow your company to the stage that your vision can be realized. So how do you balance it all? Here is how:
Know the long-term vision
Let's assume you have a clear vision and know where you are headed. (If not, you might want to read this.) Do you also know why it matters? This is not a trick question. Many smart people have ideas that never materialize into anything of substance. So you need to test that your long-term vision matters. And you should test it often — not just when you are in the initial company-building phase. Check in: Consider if someone would miss the promise of that vision three years after you started working on it. Jot down all the potential impacts of not delivering against it.
Evaluate the short-term need
What aspect of your long-term vision is most compelling to other people today? Another way to think about this is: What will customers pay you for today? This requires ruthless evaluation on your part. Remember that one person's desire is different than something that could benefit a group of people. So do not settle for biased confirmation from just a few. Ask enough people that you are convinced your distilled insight would benefit a group — even if those groups are considered niche.
Move forward with intent
Force yourself to write down what will create value today. Do this before you even start building. Once you do, you will be ready to start defining and developing your Minimum Lovable Product. Remain vigilant as you go. Stay focused on the essence of what you decided to build and make sure someone actually pays you for your work before before you do anything else. And if your "value now" assumptions prove to be off base, go back to step one above.
So you have built for today and a meaningful group of customers paid you for your solution. Now it is time to think about connectors. How does what you built relate to your long-term aspirations? Seeing bridges will help you determine how well-aligned your next moves are with your long-term plans.
This requires deep introspection and a willingness to be wrong. But it will ensure you can provide what customers need now while sustaining your bigger vision.
That bigger vision will likely be adjusted over time anyway. As your company grows and you begin to serve more people, there will be opportunities to refine. You may find that you need to go through the steps above many times — especially during challenging times.
There will be moments when the gap between where you are and where you want to go will feel too far a leap. But if you hold true to your plan, it will shorten over time. The key is to use your long-term vision as the lens for what you prioritize today.
Read more of The Founder's Paradox.