Managing the need to provide is a constant stress for people with obligations. It is especially acute for parents who are founders given the risks of building a company and extends to founders with teams and those who would like to provide for their parents and siblings.
The need to provide is always in my mind. I became more aware of it when I married my wife, and it escalated when we welcomed our eldest daughter into the world. For me, the need to provide is a desire to be an equal contributor to the team that is my wife and me. I also used to find that my confidence and relative self-worth oscillated depending on my capacity to provide, which was tied where I was in the company-building rollercoaster. It could be high one day and gone the next.
But unlike other stressors in entrepreneurship which are difficult to predict, like customer growth or hiring fit, I think managing the need to provide is much more controllable.
It takes practice and relies on self-awareness. The switch that flicked in my mind years ago was to control the narrative in my mind instead of the need to provide controlling how I made decisions.
It’s easy to say with hindsight, but it was a revelation at the time.
Keeping the need to provide in check
The tactic I use to think about managing the need to provide involves regularly asking myself five questions. To keep myself honest, I have a quarterly calendar appointment called ‘Need To Provide’, which prompts me to ask these questions.
These five questions are not difficult to answer, and at the most basic level, they are designed to help founders achieve perspective.
If managing the need to provide enters your mind regularly, ask these questions of yourself as often as you need to.
This tactic has helped me, my team members and those I mentor, some of whom are parents while others are single or in relationships with no children.
Q1 How much do I need?
Not to be confused with what a person wants, this question focuses on a financial budget to make ends meet and to live a relatively comfortable but not extravagant life.
I also use this question when hiring at Drop. As is the case with most early-stage ventures, paying the market rate is usually not an option. Paying some cash and topping up with equity and options is doable, but it requires the potential hire to know how much they need.
I’m often surprised by the number of people applying for startup roles who don’t have an annual salary in mind that is their ‘I need this to survive’ number. Everyone aspiring to work in a startup should know their number.
Outside of this hiring scenario, founders need to be realistic about what they need to provide.
Entrepreneurship is not about entitlement or market rates based on previous salaries. It’s about solving problems that will affect the lives of many and surviving in the market long enough to crack the product/market fit code.
If a venture’s rate of learning is consistently high, the timing is right, and luck plays its part, founders, team members and investors will capture value. In some cases, they will never need to think about how much they need again. Consider that the exception to the rule until it happens to you.
Q2 How do I contribute?
This question isn’t just about how much you contribute financially. It’s about how you contribute.
Audit your non-financial contribution and become the laundry guy, cook, morning routine ninja or witching hour warrior. Changing up how domestic activities or time invested in the family can have significant positive consequences.
Q3 How long is my runway?
Run the numbers and always be clear about the length of your venture or project’s runway. That means knowing weekly (cash) burn rates and how growth and hiring will influence how long you can be in the market.
Tactically, this will also help in decision making and how you prioritise tasks. Most importantly, it reduces the chance of founders breaking the golden rule in entrepreneurship, no surprises.
Q4 How do I communicate?
There are two parts to this question. The first relates to people outside your venture. Does your partner, family or close friends know your venture’s mission and progress to date? Most founders under-communicate their day job to those closest to them for fear of sounding repetitious or of them not understanding how real the struggle is to build a business. As I’ve written about before, these people can be your closest allies.
The second part relates to the extent to which communication has improved with your team, partners and investors. I heard a great adage the other day; if you hear nothing after an update to your organisation, partners or investors, something is wrong.
The punchline: Always be trying to improve communication, in all aspects of life.
Q5 What was my last lesson?
This question helps to remind you about the speed at which you are travelling. Lessons can get lost in the daily cut and thrust of building a company. Taking time to realise just how much has been learned and how cumulative lessons are building towards a greater capacity to provide is essential.
One last thing…
The answers to some of these questions may bring founders closer to the realisation that their business model is or will fail. Or, it may help calm the angst that comes with managing the need to provide. In both cases, this model helps give perspective to what can be a tricky topic.
Try asking these five questions once a quarter and let me know how you get on. Managing the need to provide is much less of an issue for me than it used to be, and I hope that in a short time, you will be able to say the same.