Making mistakes: Why communication is a problem and a solution

Regrets – we’ve all had a few. But in the startup world, where the vast majority fail to make it out of beta, making bad decisions is largely accepted as par for the course.

We’ve had candid interviews with over 30 tech entrepreneurs as part of our Unicorn CEO interview series for our Without Borders podcast. The journey is as critical as the destination when it comes to building a successful tech startup, and what we learned from these conversations is that communication is pivotal to riding out mistakes made along the way.

Here are some highlights from our new Tech CEO Communications Playbook: Winning Strategies for Success, shedding light on how leaders have transformed pitfalls into stepping stones for growth.

The Inevitability of Mistakes

Mistakes aren’t just common: they are inevitable in the startup world. Job van der Voort of Remote shared his journey and emphasised that the multitude of mistakes encountered is matched only by the growth opportunities they present. To use his words, “If you want to start a business, you’re going to make a gazillion mistakes – but more often than not, those challenges provide your biggest growth opportunities.” 

Rather than fear missteps, entrepreneurs first need to accept mistakes as integral to the learning process.

Communication: The Root and Remedy of Challenges

The second core revelation of the guide is the dual role of communication in the realm of mistakes. It can be the source of missteps or the key to navigating through them. Erez Galonska’s recount of one of his experiences scaling his team at agritech startup, Infarm. Beyond the error made in the recruitment strategy, which overlooked existing team, Galonska recognises that his lack of clear communications considerably exacerbated the pain, leaving teams questioning trust and feeling overlooked. “It was a small understandable mistake…but you can quickly imagine how the impact multiplied,” he reflects.

Whatever the misstep, how leaders communicate is paramount to damage control. Clear communication is essential to stop mistakes from spiralling and further harming the team. Honesty also helps build trust and respect and can transform a mistake into a positive end outcome if communicated well.  

Fostering Resilience Through a Positive Error Culture

Resilience emerges as another key theme, with the guide advocating for a culture that doesn’t just tolerate mistakes but learns from them. Shane Happach’s insights from fintech startup Mollie exemplify this ethos: “Creating a company culture that is a safe space to fail…can be the most empowering thing a startup can do,” he advises. 

Promoting an environment where risks and errors are part of the innovation journey can be super powerful. It also helps teams feel safe, trusted and part of the bigger business mission – something critical to ensure they will continue to power through even the trickiest parts of business leadership.

Diversity: A Multifaceted Advantage 

No leader can avoid the increasing emphasis being placed on promoting diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) in teams. The tech and the startup world may not have the best reputation for DE&I, but our frank conversations revealed the efforts being made by leaders and how diversity has played a role in many startups’ success.

The guide not only highlights the performance benefits of diverse teams but also delves into the communication challenges and opportunities that diversity brings. It underscores the importance of intentional and inclusive communication strategies to harness the full potential of a diverse workforce. Conversely, it also warns of the dangers of tokenistic and ‘purpose washing’ communications – claiming to be diverse without meaningful evidence and commitment to back this up can result in worse backlash than saying nothing at all.  

The Journey of Continuous Improvement

One of the final critical pieces of advice is to see building communication skills continuously. Poppy Gustafsson of Darktrace shares her journey of refining communication skills, especially when dealing with complex technical information. “Translating what we’re doing in a way that can be understood has been key…using biological analogies in what we do has been hugely powerful,” she reveals, emphasizing the importance of adaptability and clarity in communication, especially in technology.

Something That Won’t Be a Mistake…

These findings around making mistakes are a testament to the dynamic nature of leadership and the continuous pursuit of improvement. If you want to get deeper into any of the themes of this piece, you can delve into the full guide Making mistakes: Why communication is a problem and a solution for practical advice and strategic insights designed to equip you with the tools to navigate the complexities of startup leadership.