By Sanne Breimer

Thomas Gram, CTO of Draper Startup HouseWhat do you talk about when you’re invited to do a workshop with twenty-four undergraduate engineers in Singapore?

Our CTO Thomas Gram could have shared his experience on cybersecurity with them, or talk about software or any other ‘hard’ skill. Instead, he chose to have a chat with them about the soft skills you need when you want to become an entrepreneur. He wrote in his LinkedIn post:

“I believe that having the right people around you, acknowledging and dealing with conflict in a healthy way and choosing your battles, will set you up for success”.

“I certainly learned those skills the hard way”, he added, which made us curious enough to call him and ask about his experiences.

So, what are soft skills exactly and why are those skills so important?

“Soft skills are interpersonal skills, such as management, negotiation, teamwork, creativity and so on. Setting expectations to avoid disappointment, and discussing how to deal with situations when they inevitably happen, helps the people of the venture to maintain focus. Of course, human psychology can rarely be managed completely, but it at least sets a framework for handling situations, to avoid blowups and the misfortune that comes from that.”

How do you personally choose to have the right people around you?

“Finding the right people, that click with your specific personality, and wants the same end goal as you — is the hardest thing to do. When you finally find someone, it’s important to know how people deal with stress — as it could be in a very negative and unexpected way. At the end of the day, sometimes you have to take a chance, but you can make sure you do your due diligence, and manage expectations before you jump in. To properly test if you can work with someone requires a bit of a creative approach. You need to figure out what is a stressful situation for both of you. Some try escape rooms together, as a small indicator, others try working on something small together to see how both people react. Others take it to the extreme and go on a survival trip for 4 days in a forest together (if that’s not stressful with someone you don’t really know, I don’t know what is). You will have to figure out what works best for you.”

You wrote in your post that it’s important to “acknowledge and deal with conflict in a healthy way”. How to do that?

“From the beginning, try to have a conversation about how to deal with the inevitable conflict that comes from running a venture. It may be someone has gotten stressed out due to lack of salary, or any other number of scenarios. If you create the environment inside the company, that actively encourages you to bring up these concerns for discussion, then you can deal with these or at least chat about them — before they turn into full-blown problems for everyone.”

How did you learn that?

“In my time I’ve been part of a range of startups, each with different personalities, some failed, some didn’t. Having shared and discussed with my network after the fact, I found that founder issues aren’t uncommon, and started contemplating on this. There is no shortage of people having stories being “fucked over” by others.”

Right. What was the students’ response to that?

“The class was happy to gain a new perspective and thought the insight of not only setting up the idea but finding the right people to do it with the proper way was important. Most of the class hadn’t considered that we, as people, don’t scale too well. That’s why we need great teams, and great teams create great products.”

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