At a recent Start-up Leadership class, we discussed what start-ups need to have to be lean and move quickly. One serial entrepreneur who is from a more technical product background said “A start-up at the start only needs two types of people: product and sales.” You need a Product person because that’s what you are making for customers; and Sales to get the customers to pay for your product. He was rather adamant about ditching the strategy or MBA type of guy who wants to come in and theorize and make nice PowerPoint presentations.

When I first came to Beijing, I faced the same kind of prejudice. I was from a management consulting background and it was engrained in me about how to plan, research, analyze and recommend improvements. Often we would spend hours playing with numbers and making slides to show the client management team. It was vital that we could simplify things and fit them into matrices that made sense out of complex issues. There is no doubt that these skills are important for a company that has been operating for a while and needs direction, but when a start-up is trying to get off the ground, strategy doesn’t add much value. At first I was rather offended that people thought I couldn’t do things, but being in start-ups and observing start-ups, I realized it is true.

Many entrepreneurs look at strategy people and say “entrepreneurs are the street fighters that get things done, strategy people come in and want to tell us what to do but don’t do it themselves.” In many ways, I agree with this. Many consultancies always try and sell themselves as people who execute their strategies but the truth is, they don’t most of the time. Consultants are very good at thinking, but not very good at doing. Start-ups are like little new born chickens that need to fight for survival, otherwise could die very quickly. At the start, it’s about execution and speed to survive and out play the bigger players.

Strategy people often look at entrepreneurs and think they don’t know what they are doing but entrepreneurs look at strategy people and say, “at least we are doing something.” Strategy people have great, intelligent ideas that exist in their heads. Often these ideas will make it to paper and then a 30 page slide deck. Entrepreneurs will not analyze to death what they think could happen, but just do it. They pick a big market, make a good product, find customers, ship it, iterate until they get traction all the while with one or two slides that explain what they are doing and why they can do it better than anyone else.

I’m not saying that start-ups should not ever consider someone who is from a strategy background (otherwise I wouldn’t be here either). Start-ups should utilize the experience and intelligence of the thinkers and idea people by asking them to first humble themselves, teach them how to do the small dirty work and get them to take action which results in measurable outcomes. Don’t ditch strategy, ditch people who just want to talk about strategy.

Jason Lim

Jason is an Australian born Chinese living in Beijing, specializing in entrepreneurship, start-ups and the investment eco-system in China, especially in the tech and social area.

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4 Comments

  1. At the end of the day when all is said and done… more will be said than done.

    Ditch those people who dont’ do…

  2. I’ve seen way too many consultants from the big firms trying to get into the startup game. What most of them are missing is the ability to take ownership. I don’t blame them for not being able to produce anything of true value (after all, a slide or strategy by itself is not generating repeatable income). But I see that there is usually a strong disconnect with engineers. I wonder how many consultants were actually living through those moments when a pice of software you wrote needs to be touched again and again because something else changed. Consultants have that honeybee attitude: flying from one shiny flower in one spot to the next and bringing home a lot of stuff to live off. Entrepreneurs need to act like roaches always trying to find the spots in between and live off the bare minimum.
    Consultants are value extractors. Entrepreneurs are value creators. It takes a completely different mindset to understand this world where opportunities are made from scratch.
    I have only seen some very few making that transition.

    1. Hi Jason, thanks for the comment. It seems like you have been stung by these honeybee consultants before?
      I think consultants/MBA’s can and have made the transition. It just takes alot of introspection and mind shift. 

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