It is often claimed that start-ups with amazing ideas have failed because of the short window of opportunity. However, it is not the time frame of the opportunity, but the lack of the founders’ “soft” skills that cause the delay in time to market and hence the loss of opportunity. Let me explain why.

The window of opportunity is the time period in which the start-up can realistically and successfully enter the market. Once the window opens, other players enter the market as well and they have a fair chance of success. Google, for example, was not the first search engine, they just executed it successfully.

Once the window closes, the opportunity may be lost forever. In competitive markets, such as those that start-ups operate within, the window of opportunity is often narrow. Yet, the reason for start-up failure is not the short period the window is open, but rather the lack of founders’ skills to execute in a timely manner.

Hence, I find it inexplicable that the focus of many programs is on teaching entrepreneurs how to identify an opportunity, while almost forgetting the role of execution in realising the opportunity for success. Identifying the opportunity is indeed very important, but without the ability to act and execute, it is worthless. Founders must have the right skills to act upon the opportunity and scale up. I refer to these skills as:

Execution = People + Culture + Leadership

These skills are an umbrella for many sub-skills, all related to leading and managing people.  To mention only a few:

  • Motivating and engaging teams
  • Driving performance
  • Building resilient high-performing teams
  • Building and leading a strong culture
  • Resolving conflicts
  • Managing personal and team members’ stress
  • Networking and building rapport with stakeholders, board members and customers

Why are these skills the most important? Well, entrepreneurship is focused on developing, organising and managing the resource-constrained start-up on its risks with the aims of scalability and profitability. Thomas Eisenmann (HBR, 2013) identifies the main entrepreneurial risks as related to market demand, technology, financing and execution. In other words, identifying problems and opportunities is only one part of the window of opportunities. Developing, organising and managing (= execution) is all about teams, culture and leadership.

It is important to remember that in every stage of the start-up’s lifecycle, founders need different skills for success. For example, the skills that are needed for developing business plans and pitching are very different than those that are required to successfully scale up. When you need these “soft” skills, it is too late to start developing them. They are much harder to acquire and take longer than developing the “hard” skills. This is when many founders (especially first-time founders) fail. It is not the window of opportunity, but the lack of skills that cause obstacles in scaling up and delays in delivering a high-quality product and service to the market.

So, what can founders do? The first step is awareness. Founders and potential founders should identify the people, culture and leadership skills that they need to develop and start developing them as soon as possible. Don’t wait until you raised the capital, as this may be too late. It is also important to look at the “soft” skills of the founders’ team and identify the gaps. I call it “Teampreneurs”, because it is not about the skills of the individual founder, but the qualities that the founder team has, where they complement each other and where the gaps are. There are a few ways that founders can work on developing these skills, including building a personal development plan, coaching and peer mentorship. The Victorian government (LaunchVic) identified the skills gap as a major obstacle. LaunchVic is currently sponsoring people, culture and leadership courses for founders and executives of start-ups and scale-ups to support them with skills development.

In summary, there are multiple windows of opportunities founders can identify and assess (such as markets, customers, technologies).  These opportunities are constantly shifting; time is crucial. Success is not just about identifying the time frame of the opportunity but mainly executing in a timely manner. And here is where the “soft” skills of founders kick in.