Small business and start-up founder challenge: How to balance strategy and individual contributions



Let’s address something that isn’t always talked about in the startup world, but should be: how do you balance all the responsibilities that come along with being the founder of a business and still needing to be an individual contributor in the company? Many executives find themselves faced with this pain point, especially in the early days, and how you work through it can make or break small businesses. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, there are some tactics you can take to achieve balance without wearing yourself out too thin.


Focus on your founding team

The earliest days in your business can be overwhelming as you are faced with constant decisions and the learning curve is sharp. But they are also some of the most memorable as you figure out how to course correct and push forward against adversity.


One message that I’ve reiterated again and again is to build a solid team as soon as you are able. As scary as it was, I realized early on that I couldn’t (and shouldn’t) do everything. In order to thrive, you’ll likely need to bring the right people in before you feel fully ready.


What do I mean by the right people? People who complement your own skills, who can take on tasks that aren’t in your zone of genius, necessarily. Bring talent on your bench that you are equally confident in. People who understand your company goals and objectives and believe in them as firmly as you do. But also people who bring in differing perspectives from your own, who can contribute valuable ideas that may not have been on your radar as far as how to grow as an organization.


Keep communication open and honest. Be flexible with roles. Don’t be too quick to assign titles or tasks, especially in the very beginning. Figure out each other’s strengths and weaknesses and use that information to create a dream team of people (including yourself) who are using their skills for the greater good.


Find your “dopamine hits”

This concept, mentioned in an article by Bryan Helmig, co-founder and CTO of Zapier, refers to the areas in your work where you feel energized and in flow.


“I got this great advice from another founder,” says Helmig. “Do you feel really good when you help someone do something that they were struggling with and they nail it? Or do you get a hit when you solve some sort of a technical problem? That should give you a little bit of guidance on which way you go.”


As you are building your team, this is critical information to figure out. If the hands-on work of the business energizes you then, by all means, be a contributor. The tasks you have so much experience managing you could do them in your sleep? Keep them on your plate if it makes sense from an efficiency standpoint.


But this is also a good time to play around in other areas. Maybe you’ve been a solopreneur for a while, but you’re ready to flex your people-skills muscle and manage your team. Or you’re longing to be more active in business development and client relationships. Figure out what fits right on you.


As a founder or executive, you don’t always get the luxury of self-selecting your exact job duties, but a simple shift in perspective can help with this. What if your dopamine surge came from indicators that the company is doing well:

  • A positive testimonial hits your inbox from another satisfied client

  • Exceptional ratings on a customer survey

  • Team members are collaborative and productive

  • You hit that revenue goal you’ve been aiming at

Every success leads to a good feeling that you can channel as motivation to work through some of those less desirable tasks. Doing what’s best for the company over just what you like to do will be a choice you have to make often.


Evaluate where you really need to be working

Does a founder really have to be an individual contributor? Even though I had the skill set to perform as a chief of staff, I found it much easier to outsource client work from the start. It felt like a big risk at the time, but it was important for me to get out of the middle of it all and be the bigger picture contributor. My work was dedicated to growing the company, and I communicated clear expectations to my team members who were doing the everyday client work so that we still provided a valuable service seamlessly.


You may have started your business because you enjoy the product or service that you’re offering. You want to be an individual contributor and find it challenging to give up control of the core aspect of the organization.


Some key questions to ask yourself if you’re at a pain point in your business about individually contributing versus managing:

  • What does individually contributing mean to me?

  • Am I truly the only one who could do it?

  • Where have I become the bottleneck?

  • Can I rebuild systems to allow my team to self- or co-manage?

Even though it may feel counterintuitive, it’s incredibly important to get yourself out of the weeds of the organization and more focused on goal setting, development and planning. This is the point where a chief of staff can come in handy. They are experts in looking at the bigger picture with you, helping you align your goals with your actions and growing the business in the direction you want it to go.