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Executive Leadership Coaching

3 minute read

Growing a Startup: Top 7 Leadership Lessons in Spinnaker’s First 7 Years

Oct 29, 2019

Written by: Shawn Sweeney


In business as in life, it’s important to check your rearview mirror every now and then, even while you’re focusing your attention on the road ahead. When you’re growing a startup, you need to spend most of your time being proactive and looking forward. But don’t lose sight of the fact that leadership lessons from our past critically inform and guide our future practices, strategies, and decisions.

As Spinnaker reaches the milestone of our seventh anniversary in business, we have a lot to reflect on, even more to look forward to —and a lot to celebrate!

We have grown exponentially since I first launched the company in 2012, strategically adding partner Chris Landrum and consultant Doug Murphy to help take Spinnaker to the next level; building out our leadership team to include Brett Ludden, Scott Hamilton, and Matt Borgard; and growing our phenomenal team of experts to more than 40 experienced and results-driven professionals in hands-on roles across the country. We’re expanding our expertise in financial services to the healthcare industry. And the growth of our business has been recognized with a #516 position on the 2019 Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing privately held businesses in the U.S., and a #1 ranking on the 2019 Richmond BizSense RVA25 list of the Richmond region’s fastest-growing and dynamic companies.

On our seventh anniversary, and fresh on the heels of these two significant accolades, now’s the perfect time to take a good look in that rearview mirror and reflect on how we got here.

Top 7 Leadership Lessons in Spinnaker’s First 7 Years

What key leadership lessons can we take away from our first 7 years growing a startup? I recently sat down with Spinnaker Principals Chris Landrum and Brett Ludden to answer these questions. Here’s a list of our Top 7 lessons from our first 7 years:

  1. Build Strong Relationships

Spinnaker successfully overcame some early setbacks and obstacles thanks to the solid relationships we built along the way. If you focus on taking care of others, they will also take care of you. This is important for all of your business relationships, with clients, team members, vendors — everyone.

  1. Hire the Right People

At Spinnaker, success starts with our people. The “right” people for the Spinnaker team are hungry, humble, and smart. We’ve found that professional experience and skills are relatively easy to screen for, but where the rubber hits the road is on the question of values. In fact, as a recent study revealed, of the 46 percent of new-hires who fail in the first 18 months, 89 percent have issues fitting into the workplace. We’ve learned it’s critical to invest interview time checking for values alignment — it’s harder to do, but makes the most difference in the long run. If there’s no values “fit,” that candidate is not for us.

  1. Don’t Go It Alone

No matter how good or how smart you are, you can’t succeed alone. Seek outside counsel and advice, particularly from mentors who have been down a similar path before. Ideally, find a couple of mentors who are two to three steps ahead of where you are. We’re fortunate to have a few trusted mentors of our own, and their first-hand knowledge and experience is priceless.

  1. Be Patient

Generally speaking, things will take 10 times the effort and 10 times the time you think they will. You need to plan — and act — accordingly. Believe me, you will get there. So don’t get frustrated, and don’t stop short. Ride it out and keep pushing until you achieve the breakthrough or success you’re striving for.

  1. Take Time Off

Make it a priority to take time away from your business. Really! It’s easy to get burned out with the pressure and stress of starting a business. As leaders, you have to step away, clear your head, and recharge your batteries so you can stay strong, stay focused, and continue pushing forward. Only 7 percent of senior leaders unplug when they take time off. Do better! You owe it to yourself, your business, and your team. For Spinnaker, leaders taking time off demonstrates an important part of our culture. When our leaders take time away it signals to the rest of our organization that taking time off is OK. We want to protect our team from getting burned out, too.

  1. Remember Where You Came From

Share your story — and share it often. Write it down. Talk about it. As things move forward, it’s easy to forget about your early struggles and challenges. But capturing those early stories and sharing them with your team is powerful. Those stories help explain where you came from and what makes you who you are, and can serve as an energizing rallying point for the organization to persevere, aim high, and advance!

  1. Make Friends with Pressure

Don’t shy away from pressure — embrace it! Choose to see pressure as a good thing. It can drive you to action. It can motivate you to take risks. And it can push you to face your fears and move forward.

You can’t achieve success without putting in the work. And whether you’ve been at it for 7 months or 7 years, an important part of that work is reflecting on what you’re learning along the way. At Spinnaker, we’re working — and learning — every day. As you move your own business forward, don’t forget to peek in that rearview mirror every now and then. You might be surprised to see just how far you’ve come.


Spinnaker is different than other consultants. We drive results. We’re a hands-on firm built around a team of experts with real-world business experience helping Fortune 200 companies navigate complex business challenges. We’re changing the consulting game because we’re doers, we’re in the trenches working side by side with clients to do what needs to be done to solve problems and advance success. To find out more, connect with us today.