Playing the game of early stage start-ups effectively

– Sai Kumar Chandran –

Transitioning from an aspiring entrepreneur to the owner of an early-stage start-up is a journey of transformation. It’s just the same for teams in start-ups. It involves moving from the realm of ideas and plans into the dynamic world of execution and constant adaptation.

If aspiring entrepreneurs, before taking the plunge, have prepared themselves with a robust understanding of their business model, target market, competitive landscape, and financial projections etc, then the journey is a bit easier at the early start-up stage. The originally mapped out vision, purpose, and value proposition, operational strategy, will be the mainstay of the budding business now. In case, this wasn’t the case, then the first thing to do for a business owner will be to fix the flaws* here.

* – (for help, amongst other resources, you can refer to: Navigating the Entrepreneurial Voyage, published in the series in Nov, 2023)
Once the start-up is established, the game changes significantly. The focus shifts:

  • from actualizing to appropriating,
  • from doing to getting done, and
  • from execution to exacting,

At this stage, a start-up owner must strike a balance between hands-on work and delegation, between relentless hustle and strategic patience, and between seeking support and providing leadership. Besides ensuring the game of customer acquisition and revenue, the business owner has to start building the business / organization itself to sustain and face the challenges of a late stage start-up (more on this later in the series).

The journey now is no longer just about personal drive. It’s equally about building a team, nurturing an organizational culture, building processes to sustain and standardize work and constantly adapting to market feedback. Focusing on quality of deliverables or products is another critical make or break at this stage. The challenges are manifold – from managing cash flow to building a customer base, from refining the product to scaling the business.

Here are the top 10 dimension of effectiveness an early-stage start-up owner needs to be clear about, in the right sequence, along with some direction and resources for further learning:

1. Market Analysis and Adaptation: Continuous market analysis allows the start-up to adapt to changing market conditions, customer preferences, and emerging trends, ensuring long-term relevance. Ignoring market changes can result in lost opportunities, reduced competitiveness, and potential failure in later stages when market dynamics have significantly evolved. Pivoting the business idea and deliverables becomes possible by being cued into the market.

  • E.g. Changing the pricing model, if the economy gets better or worse from the point of starting.
  • Utilize the PESTEL Analysis (Aguilar, 1967) to continuously analyze and adapt to market changes. Further exploration can be done through business strategy texts and online resources.

2. Customer Acquisition and Retention: Acquiring and retaining customers is vital for generating revenue and validating the business model. It also provides critical feedback for improvement. Without a focus on customer acquisition and retention, the start-up risks running out of cash, failing to achieve product-market fit, and becoming unsustainable as it grows. Different approaches to awareness, engagement, lead generation and registering sales need to be the focus of the day. Pivoting marketing and sales effort will come out of discoveries made here.

  • E.g. initial approach of digital marketing hasn’t yielded results, because customers wanted to engage and understand the product before buying. Hence, a sales team and point of sales is being established to enhance the digital sales effort.
  • Focus on the approaches like AIDA model (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action) for evolving marketing and sales strategies. Books on marketing principles and online courses along with expert advice can help business owners.

3. Product Development and Iteration: Continual product development and iteration ensure that the start-up stays relevant and competitive, and meets the evolving needs of its customers. Stagnation in product development can lead to obsolescence, loss of market share, and irrelevance, especially as competitors evolve and customer needs change. Pivoting the form and shape of the product or service becomes critical to shape the initial idea to what finally sells.

  • E.g. Key features of a product / service were enhanced and 2 features taken-out to deliver a version 2.0 at the same price point.
  • As one of the approaches, embrace the Lean Start-up methodology (Ries, 2011) for continuous product development and iteration. Eric Ries’ book “The Lean Startup” can provide comprehensive insights to start this process.

4. Team Building and Leadership: A start-up’s success heavily relies on the strength and compatibility of its team. Effective leadership and a team with complementary skills can drive innovation, productivity, and positive workplace culture. Poor team dynamics and ineffective leadership can lead to high employee turnover, reduced productivity, and an inability to scale effectively in later stages. Both excess and deficient behaviours need to be addressed to make teams effective. Always remember: people can learn and change, giving the right stimuli and condition. Just that some are faster to learn and change, others take more time. Learning to deal with a large number of mediocre performers is the trick here, and not trying to continuously find high performers. Pivoting here, means reshaping hiring, providing training and coaching and even mediation.

  • E.g. institutionalizing a training to ensure Zero politics – Zero Excuses culture.
  • Understanding that a strong team is the backbone of any successful start-up. Utilize Belbin’s Team Roles (Belbin, 1981) to ensure a balanced team. More information can be found in R. Meredith Belbin’s book “Management Teams: Why They Succeed or Fail”.

5. Financial Management: Effective financial management ensures that the start-up makes prudent use of its resources, maintains healthy cash flow, and is prepared for future investment opportunities. Poor financial management can lead to cash flow crises, inability to raise further capital, and could ultimately result in the start-up’s failure. Focus here on being pound wise – and not penny foolish. i.e. Spend optimization and spending well can be powerful things to focus on, and not just trying to prevent cash-burn.

  • E.g. investing early on in a full-fledged technology solution to accelerate customer engagement, as a part of an yearly budget, instead of asking, what is the we absolutely necessarily need and what can we do without.
  • One of the possible ways is to adopt the Zero-Based Budgeting approach for effective financial management. Peter A. Pyhrr’s and several other scholarly works on financial management are valuable resources.

6. Operational Efficiency: Streamlining operations maximizes efficiency and reduces waste, allowing for better scalability and profitability. Inefficient operations can lead to increased costs, reduced profit margins, and challenges in scaling operations in the later stages of the start-up. Hence, defining processes, optimizing them, defining quality at each stage of the process and improving quality need to be every focus and not just in response to customer complaints.

  • E.g. Daily / weekly reviews and agreement between process step owners to give each other feedback. They should discuss what they expect from upstream, and get feedback on how the downstream is experiencing their output. This is a crucial ritual for quality improvement and calibration.
  • One great approach is to implement the Theory of Constraints (Goldratt, 1984) to improve operational efficiency. Goldratt’s book “The Goal” is an excellent resource for understanding this concept.

7. Brand Building and Communication: A strong brand differentiates the start-up in a crowded market, builds customer loyalty, and establishes credibility. Without a strong brand identity and communication strategy, the start-up may struggle to gain recognition, attract customers, and face difficulties in later-stage brand repositioning. Pivot on clearly stating your USP. Be clear where you stand in terms of addressing needs, quality, customization and pricing etc.

  • E.g. Engaging with real customers and real testimonials to communicate benefits to potential customers.
  • Apply the Brand Equity Model (Aaker, 1991) to build and manage your brand’s equity. David A. Aaker’s book “Managing Brand Equity” covers this in depth.

8. Customer Feedback and Engagement: Engaging with customers for feedback is crucial for continuous improvement, customer satisfaction, and fostering a loyal customer base. Neglecting customer feedback can lead to a disconnect with the market, product misalignment with customer needs, and eventual loss of customers to competitors. In fact, the best way to improve is to listen to the customers and do what is within the scope of our product and service vision rapidly.

  • E.g. if costumers are not using a feature, and they give feedback that it is not essential, then this feature can be made optional, and even chargeable for someone who needs it
  • Engage in Net Promoter Score (NPS) analysis (Reichheld, 2003) to measure and improve customer satisfaction. Frederick F. Reichheld’s articles and books provide detailed insights.

9. Scaling and Growth: Understanding how to effectively scale the business is essential for growth without overextending resources or losing quality. Mismanaged scaling can lead to operational and financial overstretch, quality control issues, and potential collapse under the strain of uncontrolled growth. Also, expanding a business is not scaling. Scaling means, having systems processes and ways of working that enable more output with lesser investment over a period or over multiple cycles.

  • E.g. establishing a horizontal function or share services which does the repeatable and reproducible work of multiple functions with cross trained staff.
  • Follow models like the Greiner Growth Model (Greiner, 1972) to understand and manage the challenges at different growth stages. Larry E. Greiner’s original article “Evolution and Revolution as Organizations Grow” is an example of a key resource.

10. Work-Life Balance and Self-Care: Maintaining work-life balance and self-care is crucial for the long-term well-being and effectiveness of the start-up leader and teams. This can have positive impact on decision-making and leadership quality. Ignoring personal well-being can lead to burnout, impaired decision-making, and reduced effectiveness, which can have cascading negative effects on the start-up as it grows. Well-being has to be a key focus, especially with passion and hard work running the show in start-ups.

  • E.g. establishing a mindfulness breathing and visualization routine, with 5 – 6 variation available for people to start the day with focus. Having variations of these before starting critical meetings. Ensuring people are trained to use them and routines are established for practice.
  • Make use of frameworks like Martin Seligman’s PREMA (Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment), and Paul J. Meyer’s The Wheel of Life. Such frameworks can help bring attention to all that is necessary for a person to thrive, to excel at work and life.

For start-up owners, it’s vital to understand that constant hustling can lead to burnout and decision fatigue. While agility and quick action are invaluable in the early stages, they need to be balanced with strategic planning, reflective thinking, and rest. Diligence, dedication, and hard work are the cornerstones of any successful venture, but they should be complemented with smart work and self-care. Understanding when to push hard and when to step back for strategic contemplation is key. This balance is not only crucial for personal well-being but also for the health of the start-up. A start-up thrives on a culture that values both urgency and thoughtfulness, both hustle and deliberation.

In conclusion, the journey of a start-up owner is one of continuous learning, adapting, and balancing various aspects of business and personal life. It is about making informed decisions, leveraging the right tools and models, and finding the right rhythm between moving fast and taking the time to build a solid foundation for sustainable growth.

Sai Kumar Chandran is the founder of OrbitShift. He is a coaching and consulting practitioner and an entrepreneur at heart. He can be reached at

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