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December 23, 2020

The 20 Best Pieces of Advice from Founders in 2020

Stack of books

It’s been a difficult year. But if there’s one thing that marks a successful entrepreneur, it’s the ability to weather any storm. Whatever societal disruption or economic turbulence arrives, successful business leaders have the power to adapt. At Norwest, we’ve seen our founders and portfolio companies show incredible resilience and agility over the past year.

They have continued to show up; continued to innovate; and continued to share their wisdom and learn from each other. Throughout the course of 2020, we’ve collected valuable insight from our portfolio founders and CEOs, and shared that wisdom on this blog. As this year comes to a close, we wanted to share some of the top pieces of advice from portfolio leaders that will hopefully guide and inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs.

On The Mindset Needed for Startup Success

Every successful founder must learn to become mentally resilient. What are the psychological toolkits – across verticals, at every point of the growth phase – that set founders up for success? Here are some of the top tips we’ve heard over the course of this year.

Amy Errett, CEO and Founder of Madison Reed, believes in treating each day as a challenging adventure:

“The things that you thought a month ago were the hardest things that you’re ever going to tackle…three days later there’s something harder. Even in the midst of that hard stuff, I get totally energized every day by my job. Many of the curveballs aren’t fair, but it doesn’t matter, that’s just the way it goes.”

Stu Landesberg, Founder and CEO of Grove Collaborative, believes in the power of community:

“The depth of connection that we’re able to make with our community because of our mission, and because of the incredible people that are out there – this continues to surprise, amaze me, and delight me every day.”

Marisa Sharkey, President and Co-Founder of Birdies, believes in asking for the right kind of help:

“I find that it’s useful to ask very specifically for the help you’re looking for, but people have come out of the woodwork to really support the building of our brand. It’s been so fun to collaborate with other people, and see their unique ideas.”

Jennifer Fitzgerald, CEO and Founder of Policygenius, reminds us that when things work out, all the hard work is worth it:

“On the surprisingly positive side is just how great it feels when things actually work and you’re able to get really great people working for you, and you’re able to deliver on a promise to customers.”

On the Best Advice for Future Founders

Hindsight is always 20-20. One of the most powerful forms of advice is the advice that comes from people reflecting on earlier stages of their journey, and describing what they wish they’d known back then. Here are current, successful founders, speaking to the next generation.

“Pick a mission that you love and that you truly believe in. If there’s a mission that resonates with you, it’s going to be so rewarding to wake up every day and work on it, and you’re going to attract people who care about the same things. It creates an amazing environment—in good times and in bad —to do the best you can to make the change you want to see in the world.” 

Stuart Landesberg, Founder and CEO, Grove Collaborative

“You have to derive passion from this. When you are just completely passionate about getting up and doing this every day, dedicated to your people—and in our case dedicated to consumers and changing their lives— there’s nothing like having the opportunity to put your stamp, your imprint on the world through your work.”

Amy Errett, CEO and Founder, Madison Reed

“I would say to any entrepreneur: just start. Just put one foot in front of the other—you don’t have to bite off more than you can chew—just start!”

Marisa Sharkey, President and Co-Founder, Birdies

“I often meet with founders who think that they need to risk it all to build their business. As if it’s all or nothing. That is not true. You can build in phases, depending on what your level for risk is.” 

Bianca Gates, CEO and Co-Founder, Birdies

“New founders are often juggling many projects at once and that can lead to decision-making in a bubble. To curb potential blindspots, I often tell founders to surround themselves with smart people—experts, advisors, teammates, etc.—and to listen when that collective sounding board offers guidance.”

Ben Chesler, Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer, Imperfect Foods

“It’s important to find ways to prototype your concept faster without years and millions of dollars of investment. ‘Just get creative about it,’ is usually what I tell new entrepreneurs.” 

Brad Hargreaves, CEO and Founder, Common

On Partnering With a PE Firm

For established and profitable companies, partnering with a private equity firm can be a prudent, powerful move. If you find the right partner, what are the tangible benefits?

“It’s certainly less overwhelming, knowing that we have a large, steady and experienced team from Norwest behind us during these times.”

Blair Brewster, CEO and President, SmartSign 

“By not being in a position where we needed to raise capital, we had the flexibility to take our time in selecting a partner who believed in our brand, vision, and values. In these turbulent economic times, it is particularly reassuring to have Norwest in our corner as both a thought and capital partner to help Vuori weather the macroeconomic storm.”

Joe Kudla, CEO and Founder, Vuori 

On Hiring a CFO

In their early days, companies focus on building great products and expanding market share. But as they start to scale their infrastructure, many companies seek a CFO. What’s the reality of finding the right CEO?

“A CFO does a lot more than what most CEOs think they do. The reason to hire a CFO isn’t for the reasons you can think of; it’s for the reasons you can’t think of. A CFO is going to be able to come in and do new kinds of analyses and ask the right questions.”

Vin Vacanti, CEO and Co-Founder, YipitData

“A good CFO can take the super-complex stuff off the CEO’s plate because they have genuine and targeted proficiency here. It’s such an important role. You’ve got to have great chemistry with your CFO, you’ll be working very closely together. And so my advice is to invest the time and energy that it takes to conduct the search properly.”

Joe Kudla, CEO and Founder, Vuori 

On Scaling Talent as You Grow

Growth is exciting. Hiring is hard. Scaling your team as you head up and to the right can be a real challenge, and many people don’t have much past experience to go on. Here are some of our talented founders on what they learned about the process.

“One word: Delegate. You should define the role and find someone to do that job better than you will.”

Jim Moran, Co-Founder, YipitData

“The biggest factor that often slows down the company is a leader’s inability to let go of wearing too many hats.”

Coral Chung, Founder and CEO, SENREVE

“If the bigger hire brings in a level of communication that allows the founder to bounce ideas, to think out loud, to listen to others’ work and life experience, it actually allows the founder to expand their own ideas and direction.”

Michael Andreacchi, CEO and Founder, Junk King

On Remote Recruitment During a Pandemic

2020 has been a forcing function for every company and every investor on the planet to rethink recruiting practices. What’s working and what’s not? Here are some tips from two founders:

“We’ve been successful with having a tight strategy from early on so that interviews over Zoom are pretty seamless. We let candidates know exactly who they’re going to be meeting with, and we’re flexible with their schedule. We made our recent exec-level hire fully over Zoom. Our team is very distributed globally, so we also gave them the option to work from a remote location for the first six months.”

Coral Chung, Founder and CEO, SENREVE

“We are a team that thrives on trust, chemistry, and clear interpersonal communication. In order to make a quick (and safe) decision, we decided we needed a face-to-face meeting. Some nine hours of driving later, it happened! This ended up being the pivotal step for us to get ‘real’ on the hard issues, and ultimately decide to partner.”

Stu Landesberg, Founder and CEO, Grove Collaborative

To our readers: may this wisdom be helpful to you. We’re excited to bring you more founder insights in 2021. Thanks for being with us this year.