“Lessons from a first time founder: Your Compass and the Top of the Pyramid” by Matt Fiedler

What’s your vision?

As an entrepreneur this is probably the most common question you’ll get. When I was heads-down building Vinyl Me Please (VMP), I never really knew how to answer this question. And to be honest, I used to see it as rather insignificant. For a long time, my answer to this question was some version of, “to keep doing what we’ve been doing, and do more.”

Recently, as I’ve been advising several startups both independently and through working with my partner, Dave, at UNBRKBLE, I’ve had the opportunity to put myself back into the role of a founder. It’s been a fun process — I’m remembering how much I enjoy building things. It’s also been a humbling process as I’ve been reminded of how challenging it can be to build something great.

As a consultant and advisor, I’ve found myself surprised by how often I ask about vision. Even more surprising is how many times this question is answered with some version of “keep doing what we’re doing, and do more.” Sound familiar?

These conversations don’t usually start with vision. They usually start with something like the following:

  • “We have this idea for what else we can do.”
  • “This person/company approached us. It’s a great opportunity for us.”
  • “We’re stuck, growth is slowing. We think we need to spend more, do more, push more.”

Don’t get me wrong, these are good things to be talking about. But as the conversations go on, it usually becomes clear that the real issue is a lack of clarity and direction. There is so much emphasis on doing, with little clarity on where they are going.

Your Compass

At VMP, it was about five years in when I came up against this issue. Up to that point, we had successfully bootstrapped the business from $0 to nearly $11mm in ARR, we had a great team, a strong product, and growth seemed to come easy for us. It had been okay to keep doing what we’d been doing, because it was working. And then it wasn’t.

It felt like it all hit at once. Our traditional acquisition strategies stalled out, churn steadily climbed, the team was stretched thin, and we were burning cash at a dangerous rate.

We did what I see most teams do when in similar positions: we doubled down, asked more of our team, spent more on marketing, and continued to say yes to any opportunity that came our way. It felt like we were making progress with how busy we were, but all we had done was create more work for ourselves. Despite the activity, it wasn’t leading us anywhere. Worse, our team grew weary as we were continually behind or at risk of going under.

The Pyramid

If you think of your business as a pyramid, the bottom of that pyramid can be made up with everything you’re doing. The top is your vision, and the middle layers are the objectives that bridge the gap. In a perfect world, the layers are all interconnected. Meaning, everything you’re doing at the bottom is connected to the top. Your vision dictates your objectives which dictates what you do. Simple, right?

However, in many cases, things have a tendency to flow in the opposite direction. When they do, vision often gets mistaken for activity. Heavy lifts are rationalized because they have some vague connection to your core offering. Figuring out whether opportunities are worth pursuing is a murky task. While you may get lucky meandering in the short term, it’s not a long term strategy.

This is precisely where we found ourselves at VMP.

Unblocking the Path to the Top of the Pyramid

This isn’t something that only startups struggle with. I’ve seen it in organizations of all kinds, in different industries, and with different kinds of stakeholders. And while there is no one-vision-fits-all solution for companies, the truth is that clarity around your company’s vision will provide you direction on where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.

A lack of vision leads to a hodgepodge operation. Silos get built as everyone sets their own direction, resources become sparse as every person and team focus on disparate priorities, and confusion mounts as you leap from one fire to the next. Clarity of vision helps mitigate these pitfalls while serving as a filtering mechanism for you and the team.

At VMP, we started the process of clarifying our vision by slowing down. We stopped doing things we’d been doing for a long time but were a drag on us operationally or otherwise. We shut down product lines with unsustainable margins, despite their revenue potential. We restructured our team and narrowed our efforts.We shifted our focus from acquiring new customers to retaining existing customers. These moves gave us some breathing room to actually think.

From there, we went through a process of rediscovery (yes, rediscovery). We reminded ourselves of why we started the company in the first place.We asked ourselves what excited us about the future, what the brand’s best self looked like, and what kinds of experiences we wanted to offer customers. As we began to answer those questions, we had the makings of something we could align the team around. And slowly, things started to flow in the right direction.

It Starts With You

If you’re like I was, you might think these are silly questions to spend time answering. Your schedule is already packed, and you couldn’t possibly slow down enough to daydream. And what’s the point anyways? Will any of it ever come to fruition? Plus, these questions (and the idea of setting a vision) can feel scary as they drum up insecurities you’re working so hard to avoid (also true in my case).

The truth is vision starts with the leader. It took me far too long to recognize this, and it nearly killed us (several different times). However this needs to look for you, take the time to get clear on where you’re going. Forget about what others might say or think. Build a narrative and work to bring it to life in everything you do. People will follow (and thank) you, I promise.

So, what’s your vision?

Matt Fielder is the founder of Vinyl Me Please, UNBRKBLE and a 2022 Entrepreneur-in-Residence with the Cone Center.