January 21, 2021

The Founder's Paradox: How to Build the Right Long-Term Habits and Perform Now

by Brian de Haaff

There is never an easy way out. Every choice you make reverbs at the expense of something else. Most company founders run up against this truth at some point — especially in the demanding early years. People cut corners in reaction to a given moment, rather than take the time to understand and invest in what will strengthen the business long-term. It is understandable but unadvisable. As you grow and scale a company, building organizational habits becomes critical to lasting success.

Company founders always need to operationalize the right habits right now — so that you can continue to do well in the future.

It might help to run with a few examples. Let's say you initially find that, despite knowing there is real value in your offering, people are not immediately seeing that value and unwilling to pay for it. You could devote time to learning to showcase the value your product provides in a way that clearly demonstrates the worth to prospective customers. You could put in that hard work and create new storylines, which requires both close introspection and deep empathy for others.

But you think you need to make sales progress now, so you decide to dramatically reduce the price of your offering. It might seem to work at first, but your market is not large enough to sustain your business with a bottom-feeder price point. Fast fix, because everyone is trained to ask for a discount. Yet a future fail, even for those who love your product.

Now you might think lowering prices in a small market is an obvious no-no example. But I can give a few more to illustrate my point. Maybe you hire the first person to apply for a critically needed role, despite obvious challenges revealed in the hiring process. Or you allow high-performing yet hot-tempered teammates to steamroll others — as long as they are getting pressing work done. "Right now" hardly ever leads to "right for the future."

Organizational discipline leads to clarity — but it requires grit to outlast the pressure of an immediate need to focus on what lies ahead.

Most people would agree that every individual person can build positive new habits. And I think we all have the power to change behaviors that will not serve us well. However, identifying and implementing the right habits becomes harder when you are thinking about a collection of individuals in an organization. If healthy individual habits are essential for a quality personal life, then they are certainly essential for a sustainable organization.

Since building a sustainably happy company was always our goal, I got comfortable with a paradox — acting quickly to propel growth while slowing down when needed to ensure the choices we make would benefit Aha! in a lasting way.

Habits are formed based on consistent and repeated action. So what guides those actions? What guard rails keep them on track and repeatable? Your values do. And people better know what you believe in. That is what makes humanity special. We can share a set of clear values with one another and choose to follow them.

Early on, I knew it was essential to codify a framework for how the team would evaluate and react to situations that might tempt a corner-cut. That is why we created The Responsive Method, which the team follows to this day. It enables us to work heads up. We are goal-first and still take action quickly.

Of course, I am not naive — I recognize that people cannot always align what is needed now with what will sustain us in the future.

Your values cannot cover every situation. So, there will be times that immediate decisions must be made and some will feel like compromises. These situations will fall into a gray space of confusion. There is a firm line though. One-off decisions should never violate your core beliefs and should always make you squirm.

When it does happen, it is important to be open and acknowledge the dissonance to the team. (And yes, it is best to avoid if at all possible — even if it hurts the business in the short-term and the tension pushes people's comfort level.)

Okay, what about the practical application of all this? Well in some ways, that is the simple part. As I wrote earlier, repeating behaviors leads to the formation of habits. You just need a lens that allows you to see those flection points — where taking the quick route now would damage you later. Then you can focus on building the resiliency needed to outlast the pressure while you ingrain those right habits. Here is how I think about it:

Be unafraid

You have a vision and goals for your business. If not, stop reading and start talking with your colleagues and writing down what you hear. When evaluating ideal outcomes, it is important to think about what is most urgent, what will have a tangible impact on the business now, and what will be a stepping stone towards larger change over time. But it is even more important to define what you believe in. Objectives, technology, products, and even people change, but your fundamental values should not. You must be courageous because every team is unique. Be true. And share that truth with everyone.

Honor the right patterns

It is so much easier to point to what is done incorrectly rather than what is right. That is partly because we are drawn to actions that are not "how we would do it" and often what goes well is hidden from us. You must celebrate what is right to reinforce the sustaining structure of the future. So engage and celebrate with teammates who display the habits you want to foster and showcase their work for others who are eager to succeed.

Intercept as needed

There are crucial moments where you need to intercept to avoid damaging shortcuts. Do not fear these moments or being accused of management. Anticipate and then model what people need and step in when the wrong decisions are still made. For leaders, engage with people at all levels of the organization. Train the organization to fear drift from established ideals. For example, I recently intervened in a situation where our own team was not using our core value of curiosity to really understand what a customer was requesting.

Continue to tell the story

The reality is that the tradeoff challenge will never stop. As the organization grows larger and you serve more people, there will only be more situations where individuals will need to apply the desired action on their own. So it is important that you continue to tell the story of the values and habits that are needed for success. Highlight the beneficial outcomes of aligned behaviors. And remember that the team you work with has an important role to play in maintaining the habits you want to instill in the collective.

You can help people by providing structure and modeling behaviors that others can then apply on their own at those crucial moments.

I believe that leaders have an important role to play in identifying the habits that are needed for long-term success. And they must decide what short-term gains they are willing to sacrifice for longer term, structural setting successes. The tradeoffs do not stop once you move from being an emerging company to a market leader. I have seen this first-hand as Aha! has matured over the years.

I would actually argue that the choices early-stage companies make in the first few years are the most indicative of what type of impact they will ultimately have. There is no doubt that you can architect the right organizational values and structure to enable people to do their best today and be even more exceptional tomorrow.

Read more of The Founder's Paradox.

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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