Not every project manager is an entrepreneur, but all entrepreneurs need to be project managers if they want their business to succeed. Whether it’s developing a new product or securing investment, where the process involves a series of steps, it should be managed like any other project.
Although many elements of project management apply to startups and large corporations alike, in a small business, the approach is distinctly different to large scale organizations. As Paul Holmes, founder of PCH Business, a support management, business, and engineering consultancy —and an experienced project manager — explains.
He says: “In large scale organizations the discipline around systems and processes is taken for granted. Members of the project team operate to standard project management process steps, and within a system with defined parameters, language roles and responsibilities, with clear scope, budget, and timescales.
“In small scale projects within small businesses, project discipline and systems are not as well established and a ‘by any means’ attitude often is the controlling principle. The role of an owner or founder as project manager is therefore much more expansive than with larger organizational projects, however, they rarely have formal project management training or understand the discipline, which can be a major drawback.”
Basic project management skills that could significantly help founders and owners of startups and small businesses include defining goals, setting strategy, devising a plan and outlining actions, and then weekly prioritizing and tracking actions through to completion.
Holmes adds: “They need separate operational, management, and strategic meetings to assign and track actions to the team, and create a development plan for the business against the agreed goals, using them as a filter and check: ‘If this thing does not help me achieve the goal, why am I doing it?’.”
Last year entrepreneur Phil Robinson founded Catapillr, the British tech company behind the Childcare Cash Advance Scheme, a new employee benefit aimed at making childcare easier to manage and more affordable for working parents. The building of the IT platform behind the scheme took six months. Fortunately, Robinson, a qualified accountant, who had previously worked in banking, had completed the foundation stage of Prince2 and was able to apply a lot of what he had learned to the development of the startup.
“Prince2 was something I had decided to do as I was being pulled in to numerous projects and wanted to have a good understanding of the best way to structure and manage them,” he says. “The foundation level was fairly straightforward, there’s a lot to learn and an exam, but if you study hard it’s not too bad.”
Communication, setting realistic goals, and organizing frequent review meetings were among the project management skills that he found most useful whilst developing the Catapillr platform, and he believes they are essential for any entrepreneur.
Robinson says: “Starting a business is one big project, with key milestones along the way, which must be met if you’re going to be successful. Project management teaches you these skills and helps you develop the mindset you need for overcoming all the challenges that you will undoubtedly face along the way.”
While some formal project management training can be an advantage during the startup process, not all business founders have the time to do it. In 2014, Bas Kohnke co-founded performance management platform Impraise, now a global scaleup with offices in Amsterdam and New York, and a team of over 60 people. He has never done any formal project management training, but over the last six years, he has developed a number of basic skills, including leadership and communication, by learning on the job from the people around him.
“Learning what true leadership means, striking a fine balance between motivating, mediating and inspiring people, has been one of the most valuable project management exercises for me,” he says. “But you can’t be a great leader unless you can communicate with people. Learning how to understand and hear people, not just listen, is another key project management skill that has helped me enormously as a startup founder. As an entrepreneur, it’s your responsibility to become a good project manager and lead others to become good at it, too.”
Ultimately any business that sets goals and has a structured evaluative process to run the business, make improvements, measure and improve, simplifying the activities and breaking the path down into logical bite-sized steps, will have a significantly better chance of being successful and profitable.
It’s true that many business owners start out with almost no management or leadership training, let alone project management training; however, to a large extent, this simply requires common sense at a basic level and following basic principles.
More challenging is a business owner with an entrepreneurial business mindset. They often hate the rigid, controlling nature of structure, management processes systems, and project management tools, and are more inclined to flit from one shiny business opportunity to the next. As a result, their focus is spread, they have too many projects running in parallel, and their resources are stretched.
Holmes, who works with many startups and SMEs, uses the project management discipline to teach the same processes to help the owners grow their businesses.
He says: “Entrepreneur-led businesses can grow rapidly with the energy passion and enthusiasm of the founder, but often without much planning. At the point at which the owner becomes operationally overwhelmed, growth stops, profits fall, the team suffers.
However, they can learn how structured project management and setting goals completely changes the way a business can and should be run, which can be very powerful, often spinning the proposition completely.”