CHICAGO — As the creative force behind their brands, entrepreneurs rarely see themselves as traditional leaders. However, failing to own their leadership roles from the start can create structural challenges in the future. Today’s consumers equate both new and established brands with the values — and founders — behind them. As the face of their brands, entrepreneurs need to be intentional about stepping into a leadership role from the beginning. Doing so allows startups to set themselves up for success at all stages of development.

The fast-paced launch phase leaves little room for startups to create a structured foundation. Founders are often solely responsible for everything from research and development to production as well as sales and marketing. This unstructured development means they adopt a jack-of-all-trades mentality — but may fail to master any one segment of their business. Being spread so thin at the beginning may also leave founders doubting their strengths and preferences. This lack of confidence puts their brands at risk of being overtaken by external influences at a critical stage of their development.  

Laura Sanchez-Greenberg, managing partner at Verde Associates, a growth consultancy firm, specializes in working with business leaders such as startup founders. Taking ownership of their brand is critical, she explained, and leading the brand starts with having trust in oneself and one’s skills. Ms. Sanchez-Greenberg noted that founders often overestimate how much other people know and rely too much on outside opinions. 

“They struggle to ask questions early on (and) fail to set guardrails” for development, she added. 

Even as a one-person operation, a founder should invest time in defining his or her role and the company’s core objectives.

Today’s consumers equate both new and established brands with the values — and founders — behind them. 

Rather than fearing getting too personal, founders should lean in to their why — their origin story and values — and how they want the brand to embody these roots in the future. Conscious consumers appreciate honesty and expect brands to have clearly stated ethics and goals. In fact, a founders’ values alone can act as the brand’s main differentiator in today’s competitive market. Clarifying these foundational values will ultimately help startups find their target markets and avoid having others define the company and its culture. This also will set the stage for hiring a team that fits the brand’s culture.

The next challenge for founders is transitioning from leading a brand to leading a team. The collaborative startup environment does not evolve into clear roles and responsibilities on its own. While horizontal interactions encourage creativity among team members, having everyone involved in every task creates confusion around responsibilities, areas of expertise and decision-making power. To avoid getting bogged down by a lack of boundaries, founders first should clarify their own job description and tasks before hiring anyone else for their team. Long before headshots are taken and creative titles assigned, each projected team member’s role should also be defined.

Throughout the business building process, startup leaders move between the role of founder, entrepreneur and chief executive officer. Although these terms often are used interchangeably, they are not synonymous — and they lead to a crisis of too many labels, unclear identities and insufficient structure. In the pressure cooker startup world, founders can’t be expected to lay out their brand’s future precisely from the beginning. But owning their roles as leaders and their brands as a true reflection of themselves will set the groundwork for faster growth and long-term success. 

Natalie Shmulik is the chief executive officer of The Hatchery Chicago, a food and beverage incubator.