Big and audacious: If Australia wants more unicorns, it needs more confident founders

Dr Jana Matthews | 4 min read |Big and audacious: If Australia wants more unicorns, it needs more confident founders

Lack of confidence is holding back Australian entrepreneurs.

Until Atlassian became a ‘unicorn’ (a privately held startup valued at $1 billion), no home-grown Australian entrepreneur had built one.

But since then, we have had three high-profile Australian unicorns. And it has become a much faster process. It took Atlassian 12 years, Canva six years and Airwallex just over three years to reach a valuation of $1 billion each.

Yet many Australian founders are hesitant to set big, audacious goals. In many cases, their long-term growth goals are significantly lower than the growth they are currently experiencing.

A friend once told me about an MBA class he joined in the US, where the professor asked the students why they had enrolled. When the first student said he had come to learn how to build a billion-dollar company, my friend thought, ‘I can’t imagine anyone in Australia saying that’. But when student after student said the same thing, my friend left the class with a new vision and far greater ambitions.

So why don’t Australian founders believe they can grow $1 billion companies? Psychologists tell us that confidence comes before success — that to achieve success, you need to be confident about what you are doing, selling or representing.  Sports psychologists teach athletes to envision running the course, crossing the finish line, and hearing the roar of the crowd. We need to do the same for founders.

Confidence comes from identifying and working on your strengths, as well as mitigating your weaknesses.

Tom Landry transformed the Dallas Cowboys from a losing team to a winning team by compiling individual videos — not of what they were doing wrong, but the blocks, tackles, runs, throws and catches they were doing right.

Landry then asked each player to practice what they were doing right. These are my thoughts on what Australian founders need to do right.

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Develop more knowledge, skills and experience with business growth

Many of the founders of high-growth-potential companies in Australia have not studied business or management, and a lot have never been to university.

There are many ways to get the knowledge and skills needed for growth: books, videos, online courses, conferences and industry group events. Face-to-face programs, mentors, and peer group discussions help founders make sense of what they are experiencing in their company and enable them to learn from the experiences of others before they have to make those mistakes themselves.

Over time, founders learn the basic elements of planning, marketing and sales, leading and managing people to high performance, strategy and finance — in other words, gain the knowledge and skills required to drive growth. We don’t let people drive a car until they have the knowledge and skills to do so. Once founders become proficient in driving growth — in other words, learn what to do when, why, and in what order — their confidence soars.

Set realistic expectations that are attainable for yourself and others

Some founders set themselves up for failure by continually setting goals that cannot be achieved unless every single thing goes according to plan. By setting aggressive growth goals that are continually knocked back or rejected, you’ll start to lose confidence.

By taking the approach of setting smaller goals, your confidence will build over time. Achieving many small wins — along with the feedback they provide — will help you to build your confidence.

Don’t judge yourself more harshly than you deserve

No founder makes the right call every time. Being overly critical, hard on yourself, or depressed by setbacks is not useful.

Take time to extract the learning and get smarter, then move on.  Resilience is critically important. Tag this as the ‘learning experience’ you never need to have again.

Recognise the impact of personal issues on confidence

If you are having health problems, financial worries, or difficulties with a partner, this will impact your ability to lead and manage, and potentially damage your confidence in being able to achieve goals. Managing yourself is a vital part of every founder’s job description. By reflecting on what you’re doing right, then identifying the changes you need to make, you can focus on your wins.

If more founders are provided with opportunities to gain the knowledge and skills required to grow, they will gain confidence in themselves and in their company’s growth potential, and Australia will have more unicorns, job growth, and the economic growth that benefits us all.

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