Vision. You need something that will light the fire and keep it burning. Your purpose gives you strength and determination. It is also part of the reason everyone else (customers, investors, employees, etc) engages with your company. Without vision things ring hollow so for me this is at the core.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Christos Kritikos.
Christos Kritikos is a startup strategist, product expert, coach/mentor and dreamer, and the founder of Emerging Humanity that helps entrepreneurs tackle startup chaos, gain market traction, and become fundable. He is an EIR for the US Federal SBDC program, a mentor for NSF I-Corps, and a contributor at innovation initiatives around the world. Christos specializes in consumer-facing startups in fields like health & wellness, education, travel & hospitality, economic development, social impact, and lifestyle.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Hello and thanks for having me.
I studied computer engineering (BS and MS) and started my professional life 20+ years ago as a technology solutions consultant for small businesses. I would work with founders and executives on both internal and customer-facing products & services. Around the same time, I started my own entrepreneurial journey and over the years I got involved with a number of companies, usually in a role that included product and/or operations. So my professional life was heavy on technology and operations (a lot of left hemisphere), but my passion was (and still is) centered around the human being; things like psychology, personal growth, and society. Naturally I started with a large gap between these two but over the years I made a conscious effort (and corresponding choices) to bridge it.
Currently I combine my three main interests (humanity, technology, entrepreneurship) by helping startups and entrepreneurs build successful startups in human-centered verticals (health and wellness, education, travel and hospitality, social and economic development). Additionally I advocate a mission-first and impact-driven approach to building and running a company, which I believe aligns with the collective benefit of our society.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
This is a story I never shared (until now) partially because it is a bit random! I read news on the Flipboard app and I had started “pinning” interesting articles to an “emerging technology” magazine (this was back in 2017). After a few months I noticed a trend, the articles had strong social elements and were a lot about how technology affects humanity, society and culture. So I renamed the magazine to “Emerging Humanity” (you can see the magazine at http://news.emerginghumanity.com) and this became the inspiration and the name for a company that focuses on the intersection of technology and humanity. The idea was to promote tech entrepreneurship as a catalyst for business activity, economic development, and social progress, especially in under-developed pockets of our world.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
I grew up in a risk-averse get-a-degree-and-a-job sort of family, so I didn’t really have entrepreneurial role models. Still, life graced me with many people that helped me at different times. When we are open to possibilities and approach things with enthusiasm, interesting synchronicities take place!
Thanos Papadimitriou (currently a partner at Charge Ventures) introduced me to the world of entrepreneurship when we co-founded our first company in Greece more than 20 years ago. Andre Dneprov (currently a Director of M&A at IQVIA) has embraced and supported my outlier personality for numerous years and this has given me courage to live authentically instead of trying to fit the mold. Michalis Faloutsos (currently a CS Professor at UC Riverside) has been a great “partner in crime” in numerous ideas and endeavors, fanning the flames of entrepreneurship and risk-taking. Scott Brovsky at the EPIC SBDC offered me my first opportunity to mentor (something that wasn’t even on my radar) and helped me realize how important and enjoyable it is to me. They (and probably many others) have made significant contributions to my path so that I am where I am today.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I believe what makes Emerging Humanity different is that we advocate a holistic approach to entrepreneurship. This refers both to the relationship between the company and its environment (social responsibility, sustainability etc) and to the intra-company behavior of executives, managers and team members. Our philosophy is that (in our new era) successful businesses will need to practice social responsibility and this will require strong founders with exceptional personal and group leadership skills. We want companies with a clear mission engaging in appropriate impact-driven activities. We also want executives with a strong inner compass practicing individual accountability. Lastly we want the company culture and team dynamic to align with and support the above. This is quite a lot to unpack!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I see entrepreneurship as a catalyst for business activity, economic development and social progress. Technology can have a life-changing impact on under-developed and neglected parts of our world, empowering people, providing access to essential goods & services, and substantially improving the quality of their lives. Per se I allocate part of my time to pro-bono activities (mentoring & coaching, program development, educational products) that transfer US entrepreneurial know-how to my native Greece, Africa, Middle East, Latin America, and South/South East Asia. I also participate in a number of initiatives that support young entrepreneurs (students, first-timers, etc) and address important challenges like refugees and social inequality.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
This is a tough one because I would love to list a lot of things! 🙂
I can group traits into 3 main categories:
- Mindfulness / Self-Awareness / Authenticity: You get to know who you are, what you are doing and why you are doing it. Do your goals align with your vision and values? Do your work tasks align with your strengths and personality? If I tell you to do this every day for the next 5 years would you be okay with it? Because most probably this is what you will have to do! Example: I work on consumer-facing products in specific verticals (health and wellness, travel and hospitality, education, economic development). I am passionate about these things which means my creative juices get flowing, I come up with better solutions/ideas, and I can put more of the necessary legwork. If you have a product like this you want to work with me. If not, would you hire someone (however skilled/talented they may be) indifferent to what you are doing? Obviously not. Knowing who I am allows me to offer maximum value to my clients.
- Listening / Openness / Adaptability: You get to understand the environment around you. The market conditions, your target customer, the large socio-economic and political trends. Also your team, your partners, your investors, and any other stakeholders. All these affect your company directly or indirectly. Be open and ready to adapt. Example: Pre-Covid a lot of my business development was in person. NYC had networking events almost every day and I would attend a bunch of them. Post-Covid everything moved online. Suddenly, it was feasible to remotely pursue opportunities in areas where in-person contact was traditionally necessary. What an amazing opportunity! The result: I am now more active in Greece, Africa, and Asia. This also aligns better with my vision and my purpose.
- Commitment / Determination / Strength: If you know yourself and the environment, you can make good/better decisions. Of course you then get to implement those. You get to walk the talk. No example needed here, just do it!
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
I have made “wrong” decisions but that doesn’t mean I wish I hadn’t. It is better to act on something (whether someone else’s advice or my own) that turns out wrong, than to not act and wonder “what if”. Per se, I believe that the biggest mistake is to overstay in situations and unfortunately I have been guilty of this on many occasions. I have enough experience and intuition to tell early on if something is not working. However, a part of me hates the idea of giving up too quickly. Hence the inner challenge. It is an ongoing practice for me to change course before I have exhausted all options, even when the writing is very clear on the wall.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Let’s make sure we don’t mislead readers into believing that hard times exist only when starting! But yes, when I first started I was quite clueless. My first business happened to be in Greece. I had moved back after studying and working in the US and decided to start a company. Market challenges, bureaucracy, cultural differences, local corruption, poor decisions, channel partner fallouts… I saw it all! I remember I decided to buy some magazine ads (back in those days!) and the person who appeared as working for the ad agency was a crook — he ran away with what was 80% of my ad budget. I was crying every single night for weeks. I suppose we can call it a “character building experience”, ha!
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
A lot is simple commitment to a vision, a goal, or a decision. Very unglamorous but also very important! It is the compass that keeps me loyal to my vision and accountable for any progress I make (or not). The path is before me and I get to take a step. At times I don’t feel like it. But I do it.
Persistence comes hand in hand. Not giving up in the face of difficulty or adversity. Getting resourceful, trying different things, pulling the plan B or C or D, adjusting, pivoting.
Persistence makes sure I don’t stop, that I keep moving, that I will get somewhere. Commitment makes sure that this somewhere is where I want to be!
All this can be quite challenging so a lot of my toolbox is about health, inner balance and peak performance. Meditation, nutrition, exercise, meaningful connections, community, trusted advisors. A lot of small things that add up.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
“This too shall pass” as the saying goes. Neither the highs nor the lows last too long so take advantage of them while you can. Data shows that successful companies invest internally during downturns. For instance, many hotels were remodeled during the pandemic. Imagine your revenue becoming zero and spending millions on top of that. It seems counterintuitive, survival instinct kicks in and it can cloud your thinking. It takes faith to say “customers will come back so let’s spend money to prepare”. The equivalent is true for the good times. Sure, open a couple of champagnes and celebrate. But stay humble. Wake up the next day and keep walking the path.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
You mean that a young founder can have access to VC money? Wouldn’t that be great!
But seriously, I am a big advocate of conservative fiscal attitude. For instance, I see many tech-savvy founders creating overly bloated products because dev is free (they write their own code). I ask them “would you include this or that feature if you had to pay for it”? The same happens if you are flush with capital — everything seems cheap. But how would you prioritize things if you had almost no funding? A bootstrapped mindset forces the difficult and unglamorous decisions that make the business viable. So my advice is to think bootstrapped. It is a great practice. And this comes very handy when raising money!
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
- Vision. You need something that will light the fire and keep it burning. Your purpose gives you strength and determination. It is also part of the reason everyone else (customers, investors, employees, etc) engages with your company. Without vision things ring hollow so for me this is at the core.
- Product. People won’t buy your offering just because it comes with a good story. You get to deliver substantial value to your customers. And there better be plenty of them! In other words you want a powerful audience-problem-solution combination.
- Team (and Culture). Obvious but the devil is in the details. You want to align in vision and values. You also want to complement skills, strengths, personality, and temperament. This applies to all levels, from the executive team to the interns.
- Funding. Money makes the world go around and you get to spend some to make some (or hopefully much more). But also beware, too much capital can lead to fiscal laziness. You get to pair the funding with the right attitude of responsibility.
- Leadership. I am not referring to decision making or management but to leadership as a stance. It starts with the individual — each person thinks and acts as a leader for themselves and the people around them — and expands through the company. This creates an environment of trust, accountability and empowerment; the best shot you can get at manifesting whatever potential you have in your hands (items 1 through 4).
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The most common mistake is probably to start the wrong way or for the wrong reasons. Putting the carriage before the horse, building a product nobody wants, not realizing a business has a lot of moving parts. I have probably done all these myself!
How to avoid them? Rein on the excitement. Educate yourself on the (lean startup) methodology, then follow it. Be open to early (negative) feedback — it may hurt but crashing after spending lots of time & money hurts even more. Visit emerginghumanity.com, read the startup success guide, check out the tools and resources, get some coaching (hint: with me)! Make a small time & money investment early on, to save a large time & money loss later.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
For me entrepreneurship is not just about company growth but also about personal breakthroughs. We all have fears, weaknesses, blind spots, self-imposed boundaries etc. We may never notice them in a stable corporate job but they will be popping up left & right at our startup. So the big challenge is not out there in the market but inside each of us.
Problem is, many founders fixate outwards, they think “when xyz happens then I will finally relax” and they work themselves to the ground to get that xyz. But a better approach is actually the opposite: when I relax, things (including xyz) happen in a faster, smoother, more efficient way. This doesn’t mean you don’t work hard, but not having your teeth clenched (so to speak) all the time, saves you from unnecessary burden.
Per se, the best practices are internal. On one hand you have to maintain physical, mental and spiritual strength. Everyone is different but some tried-and-tested tools include meditation, exercise, good nutrition, limited media exposure, contact with nature, recreation, human connection etc.
On the other hand, you want self-vigilance. Entrepreneurs tend to have controller, hyper-achiever, stickler personalities that lead to do-it-all attitude. Can you let go of your controller and trust your team? Can you chill your hyper-achiever to offer yourself some R&R? Can you silence your stickler and allow things to happen NOT the way you have it in your head? And if you think this is possible, can you do it in times of stress, market pressure, and financial challenge? The only way to make this happen is to be on top of your own self, go against your habitual behavior, and lean into whatever fear or insecurity pops up.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If we analyze most of our problems (individual or collective) we will find basic human needs at the core. Personal characteristics and cultural context define the (mainly) crooked, indirect, ego-and-fear-driven ways that we pursue these needs.
Now imagine if people could (a) increase in awareness so they recognize their needs and their current approach and (b) feel empowered to do something to improve their life. Then I think humanity would get to a much better place.
I believe entrepreneurship can achieve both of these, it is an amazing path to personal development and empowerment. Like all challenging paths, it helps to have some guidance. So this is my movement and what I strive to achieve with Emerging Humanity: help people do entrepreneurship right, not (only) for the company’s balance sheet but for the human being at the helm.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
My two role models have been Bono and Sir Richard Branson. They are probably an unusual choice in the tech startup world but I personally find them amazing. They excel at their craft, they are passionate, authentic, unconventional, uncompromising, and what they believe in reverberates throughout all their actions. It is super inspiring!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
- I run a Linkedin group (Mindful Entrepreneurship) where I post tips, useful info and updates. In addition members can ask questions. It is a great way to stay in touch and receive (free) support.
- There is also the Emerging Humanity newsletter and our Flipboard magazine.
- You can see all these at https://emerginghumanity.com/contact
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!
It was a pleasure, thank you for the opportunity.