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Lauren Perkins: Stability, Agility and Striking a Balance

Entrepreneurs run up against impossible odds. With 90 percent of startups destined to fail – and many not even surviving their first year – how can you defy the odds and drive business success? Lauren Perkins lived in those trenches: she founded her own agency and a startup, taught at General Assembly, was a Columbia University entrepreneur-in-residence and transitioned to the corporate world as the Managing Director of Microsoft for Startups.

“I’ve taken a company from imminent bankruptcy to acquisition,” Perkins explains. “I’ve scaled a brick-and-mortar startup from $1.5 million to $10 million in two years without fundraising and rescued a founder from walking away from a chaotic yet profitable startup. I wish I could say that I exaggerated the direness of the situations of these three startups … [but] these scenarios have played out countless times for many founders.”

Now, her latest book takes aim at traditional startup playbooks that require high-risk strategies or extensive resources. Think Like a Brand. Act Like a Startup. offers a different perspective: blending the stability of corporate business with the agility of a startup. This ‘best-of-both-worlds’ approach lets founders experiment without chaos and survive when others would fold.

“For early-stage founders, the stability and agility dance is so, so important. Because if you always stay 100 percent agile – or force your people to stay there – you and your team are sure to burn out.”

What’s wrong with older models?

Simply put, for many, they’re totally ineffective. As an example, the Lean Startup method relies only on rapid experimentation, pivoting from one product model to another on the fly. It lacks stability. Blitzscaling is wonderful if you have the resources to raise $10 to $50 million in funding, but that’s a major if. Very few founders will have access to the money required for such rapid growth – especially female founders, who consistently receive less venture capital funding.

These gold-standard approaches will work for some, but no framework is one-size-fits-all for business success. Perkins points back to startup failure rates; they haven’t improved in years. Struggling founders need something new to sink their teeth into.

How it looks in practice: four strategies

This approach – #BRANDxSTARTUP – lets you experiment without putting your business on the line. Essentially, you feel safe to fail and learn, staying resilient no matter what the world throws at you.

Think Like a Brand. Act Like a Startup. goes into much more detail, but Perkins offers four techniques you can try right now to examine your business critically.

  • Evaluate your leadership style. What specific traits come to mind? Are you collaborative or authoritative? Do you prefer to coach your team, or are you more hands-off? Be honest with yourself. It’ll help you work with your team and flag any potential weak points.
  • Use the Golden Circle tool. Ask yourself why your company exists, how you accomplish your core mission and what you offer. Think of it like the rings of a tree (and, if it helps, draw a diagram). Your entire business should align with your core – your why.
  • Think about your users or customers. What’s causing a gap or disconnect between you and your target audience? Maybe you don’t have enough money or resources to execute a big product draw right now. What else can you do to fill that gap?
  • Grab a piece of paper and draw two intersecting lines, creating a graph. Make the x-axis known vs. unknown and the y-axis unimportant vs. important. Start mapping out your business assumptions (costs need to stay under budget, occasionally employee unavailability or the launch of a competitor’s new product). You’re looking for ideas that sit in the important and unknown quadrant to ensure you’re not building your business on top of faulty assumptions.

Keep yourself (and your team) sane

When you remove chaos from your startup and learn how to experiment safely, you’re not the only one who benefits. Your entire organization will see the difference. After all, if your team feels panicked, stressed or uncertain, it’ll reflect in their performance, morale and overall well-being.

Founders should:

  • Ask team members what they need for stability, especially in times of crisis or pressure.
  • Understand team members’ stress responses – and learn how to support them.
  • Model behaviors like vulnerability and owning your mistakes to foster open communication.
  • Encourage teams to build support networks with each other (or others in the same role).
  • Prioritize their self-care and stability to set an example for others.

“Stability and agility are really essential: not just for our leaders, but for our teams,” Perkins said. “Regardless of what stage the startup is in, it can’t possibly work if the humans inside of it can’t find the stability that they need to take risks.”

Female founders: rethink your constraints and drive business success

In the startup world, women often face particular challenges, like opportunity gaps or managing motherhood. Some are limiting beliefs of their own making.

“Women tend to think and feel very deeply even in business – I can admit that I am somebody who thinks and feels very deeply. When I used to do consulting work, I had trouble letting go of clients who were done with us. I would say, ‘But we know how to fix your problems and help you!’ I couldn’t leave the bird with a broken wing on the sidewalk. Not everyone wants to be saved, but I just couldn’t accept that.”

If you relate, Perkins has some hard-won advice. Try to think of your emotional involvement – or any other challenge – as a superpower, not a constraint.

“Recognize where you are, and work with what you have. We all operate in different ways. Trying to be like Jen Rubio (Away) or Brian Chesky (Airbnb) won’t get you anywhere. Your journey is your own. The whole point of looking for stability and agility is that you have to not just meet people where they are but be where you are.”

Lauren Perkins’s book, Think Like a Brand. Act Like a Startup. is An Inc. Original publication and launches on June 11. You can learn more and sign up for exclusive bonuses and a release reminder on her website.

About the author

Laura Grant

As Managing Editor of Lioness, Laura Grant works with the editorial team and a slew of freelancers and regular contributors to produce a publication that offers equal parts inspiration and information. Laura is a graduate of Western New England University with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a master's degree in Communications. She spent her undergraduate term developing her writing and communication skills through internships, tutoring and student media involvement. Her goal is to publish a novel one day. Before joining Lioness full-time, Laura was a freelancer herself and wrote many stories for the magazine.

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