Passion and persistence aren't enough to make a founder successful. Self-reflection and humility are essential, according to these veteran entrepreneurs. 

Adrian Tuck smiles while sitting in front of a window.

The middle stage of a startup is the "teenage phase", says Adrian Tuck, former CEO of Uplight. He explains it's like parenting a teenager—introducing self-reliance and structure at just the right time to avoid rejection.

New ventures can fail for a variety of reasons: a lack of funding, a weak business plan, a poor product-market fit, or a lack of understanding that as a business grows, so must its founder.

The transformation of a founder—from someone with an idea to the leader of a business with hundreds of employees, a board of directors, and a CEO—requires an inward journey of personal and professional growth. While the founder’s company scales up, he or she transforms from a doer to manager to leader—each role requiring a very distinct skill set and perspective.

Jeff York, a Leeds professor and academic researcher who has published numerous studies on entrepreneurship and also hosts a podcast on the subject, says, “Most successful startup entrepreneurs are extremely good at listening, extremely good at evolving their ideas based on feedback, and extremely good at bringing other stakeholders in to co-create the venture with them.”

Those skills are great for getting through the startup stage. But the next stages often bring new challenges and demands. “There are very few who can be good at each stage,” says Erick Mueller, executive director of the Deming Center for Entrepreneurship and adjunct professor at Leeds. A lifelong entrepreneur, he’s learned that his sweet spot is the first stage, in which the fast pace and endless possibilities sync perfectly with his strengths.

Mueller says it’s uncommon for founders to have the skill set needed for every phase of a company’s growth. But Adrian Tuck, the former CEO of Uplight, is an exception. “He created the last unicorn in Boulder—he’s brilliant at transitioning through all the stages,” according to Mueller.

The standout

Tuck’s journey to becoming a self-proclaimed “servant leader” began at the age of 18 as an officer in the British army, where he received leadership training and acquired skills and experiences informed by the army’s motto, “Serve to lead.”

“Being a soldier made me an effective entrepreneur. After the army, I made a bet on a startup and became employee number five and eventually learned I liked everything about it,” he says.

“There’s one type of person who’s only happy in one phase or another. The second type of person is really excited to learn and grow through the phases,” Tuck says, “and I try to be the third type, who knows what the next phase looks like and can help everybody get there.”

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“I learned that we have to mourn the loss of the things we used to do and be excited about the ways we’re moving forward.”

Adrian Tuck, Former CEO at Uplight

In Uplight’s early stage, Tuck held weekly in-person pizza meetings—a highlight of the week for employees. But when the company began expanding nationally into new cities, the format in which the staff interacted had to change.

“I learned that we have to mourn the loss of the things we used to do and be excited about the ways we’re moving forward,” he says. “My job was to help everybody see the direction and give them the tools they needed—and then get out of the way.”

This is what he has tried to impart to student entrepreneurs at Leeds. For the past 10 years, Tuck has been a consistent contributor as an instructor of the New Venture Creation course, a guest speaker and panelist, a mentor and coach, and a strong supporter of the Deming Center.

Jane Miller poses next to a colorful mural at Rudi's.

Jane Miller is a food industry veteran and has served as CEO for Lily's Sweets (sold to Hershey's), HannahMax Cookie Chips, ProYo, and now, for a second time, Rudi's Rocky Mountain Bakery in Boulder, Colorado.

The ‘founder whisperer’

Following the startup stage, the buildup is considered the most critical time in the life cycle of a business, explains York. A founder is expected to morph into a growth-stage leader, a process builder, and a delegator with emotional intelligence, communication skills, and a grasp of cultural and organizational dynamics.

“Founders have the skills to start the company and garner the initial resources, but they don’t always have the skills to manage a growing company,” says York. “That’s why oftentimes you’ll see, as these companies are transitioning, the board or investors will bring in a CEO who’s a professional manager.”

They’re sometimes known as “founder whisperers.”

Jane Miller, the current CEO of Rudi’s and past CEO of Lily’s Sweets, has over 35 years of executive experience in the food industry and has worked extensively with founders.

“Founders often turn to an outside CEO, someone who has a network of people and understands the fast pace of an entrepreneurial environment but also understands how to take a founder’s vision and make it bigger and broader and scale it,” says Miller. 

However, it’s not always a match made in heaven, as founders and operators both want to be in charge. “I think that might be one of the hardest kinds of transitions for founders—going from doing everything by themselves to turning the keys over to an operator.  And the operator may too quickly dismiss the founder with the attitude of ‘Thanks for creating this great brand—I’ve got it from here.’” 

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“The most important part is continued evolution in one’s own leadership journey.”

Erick Mueller, Executive Director of the Deming Center for Entrepreneurship and Adjunct Professor at Leeds

It’s similar to a marriage, Miller says. “It’s about getting two people to really figure out how to work with one another and respect each other’s skills. Honest communication about goals is critical.” 

Miller has been actively involved at Leeds for over 15 years, sharing her wealth of experience with both student entrepreneurs and women graduate students. She also serves on the Leeds Advisory Board.

The founder leader

Scaleup, defined as late-stage expansion, is the final stage, making human-centric skills even more important as the founder becomes a leader at scale. If the management infrastructure and the right people are in place, a founder has the potential to thrive in this stage. By communicating a clear vision and strategy, he or she can set the overall direction and lead the company to success.

This is where one’s leadership style truly emerges.

“I spent time examining what type of leader I was, and I thought of myself as a fairly simple leader whose job is to help everybody see the direction and support them,” says Tuck. “I like to think of myself as empathetic and humble. And I like this concept of ‘servant leadership,’ the idea that my job as a leader is to make other people better.”

When it comes to growing a company, entrepreneurs who have acknowledged their strengths and limitations, have developed the humility to reject a lone-wolf mindset, and are willing to partner with others with complementary strengths have done the inner work needed to position themselves for success.

“The most important part,” says Mueller, “is continued evolution in one’s own leadership journey.”