Do startup entrepreneurs neglect their soft skills?

Do startup entrepreneurs neglect their soft skills?

Make time to learn, because the future of your business will depend on it

I am excited today because I will be present this week when five C-level leaders I know will share their personal stories of transforming and leading transformation for the first time. My excitement led me to reflect on my own experiences and consider the question I posed in the headline.

Read or listen to almost any transformation story, and it invariably starts with leaders improving their soft skills for better results. Whether it be in manufacturing, retail or tech. Starbucks, Kone Elevators, Microsoft … the story and elements may differ, but the theme remains the same.

As tech innovators mature into leaders of giants like Apple, the theme is the same. Whether you like it or not, Apple might not have enjoyed its success without Steve Jobs’ ability to paint a picture or tell a story. Yet he was also notorious for lacking social niceties, and he treated his people badly.

I started my business more than 30 years ago with a small team. I focused on improving my ability to market, sell and build partnerships. I devoted myself to more technical skills. As I matured as a leader, I shifted my perspective. If I had known then what I know now, how different could things have been?

This got me thinking about a more recent experience. About five years ago, when my company opened a new business line of professional education products, we gave them away for free to learn what to improve and what to keep. The biggest group of users were startup entrepreneurs, who quite sensibly were husbanding resources and taking advantage of a quality, free offering.

I noticed that after the trial period, most dropped out. Was it the cost? Were they too busy? Did they have better things to do with their time? Why do startup entrepreneurs not see the value of building their soft skills?

Every startup leader (and business leader) and entrepreneur, no matter the size and stage of their organisation, must learn constantly. This does not mean joining classes, however. Most people who have built a business have been short of time, sleep, resources and money much of the time.

Every startup entrepreneur spends time firefighting, working in and on the business, but all too often at the expense of building their future self. This is understandable. However, given the failure rate of entrepreneurs, I would suggest doing this exclusively is a mistake. But why make the time for self-development when every issue an entrepreneur faces can be considered an existential threat to their new and growing business?

Start with your why! Your technical skills are not the secret to your startup’s future. Your soft skills will enable you to share ideas, connect with investors, clients, partners and customers, and to move forward. Leave the development of soft skills to chance, approach them haphazardly, or fail to commit, and it could sign your startup’s death warrant.

I am naturally quite systematic when preparing pitches and communication. You cannot imagine the hours I have put into practising sales and other presentations until I was comfortable. You also cannot imagine the amount of feedback I sought, the iterations, and the changes I have made and continue to do.

Where to focus? The nature of business remains the same but the “how” continues to shift. I have started many new business lines over the last few years but have not been in a pure bootstrapping founder situation for almost 30 years. However, speaking to people who have, and to experts at Stanford University and other organisations, I have learned that leadership aside, there are some essential soft skills to keep improving.

Leadership is essential to properly motivate others to be their best. It depends on really understanding and meeting their needs in any situation. It is also the area most leaders look back on and kick themselves for making mistakes, so do not wait.

The next essential quality is empathy. I really wish this had been better articulated decades ago. Empathy builds the right organisations, products, and services today. I re-learned empathy through Stanford’s Design Thinking and learned that its applications are endless. Some people may be more naturally empathetic than others, but this should be in the top tier of skills startup entrepreneurs develop daily.

Rounding out the top 3 would be communication. Again, this requires understanding and empathy. But communication needs to be continuously developed. It is not just delivering pitches or marketing; its applications are endless. Get this wrong, and so much can go wrong. Again, you cannot afford to wait. But with all of these, do not leave your learning unstructured.

So how can I develop myself when I am already so busy? You need high-quality input materials, you need to make time and opportunities to practise, and you need time to get feedback and reflect.

For quality materials and input, find what works for you. For example, podcasts are good when you are on the go. Mentors can give you good advice and feedback. Opportunities are everywhere. What is challenging is building effective action learning and reflection, but there are tools available to do this.

Yes, focusing on your business today is essential. Yes, you have time to learn. But do not neglect your future self. If you do, you will not be there when you — and your organisation — need you the most.

Arinya Talerngsri is Chief Capability Officer, Managing Director, and Founder at SEAC — Southeast Asia’s Lifelong Learning Centre. She is fascinated by the challenge of transforming education for all to create better prospects for Thais and people everywhere. Reach her email at or

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