From I-O to IPO
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From I-O to IPO

The psychology of startup success

What science tells us about entrepreneurial performance

Nikki Blacksmith, Ph.D. and Maureen McCusker, Ph.D.

If you want to be one of the few elite startups that not only survive but thrive, there is one powerful question you need to consider:

How can my team reach peak performance?

This is likely something you ask yourself daily. And that’s likely because the answer to it is overwhelmingly complex. But complex doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be difficult to understand. We, at Blackhawke Behavior Science, have spent decades studying high-performing teams, and while our science has shown us that there is no one-size-fits-all answer, there are some compelling patterns.

We’re here to break those down for you; this is the first in a series of 10 blog posts that will delve into high-performance in entrepreneurial ventures, exploring what differentiates the most successful startups. In these blogs, we will also provide tips and strategies for you to apply in your own organization.

To break down entrepreneurship performance, it’s important to first define entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is the creation and operation of an organization that introduces a novel product or service. It is not a person or an event; entrepreneurship is a process that unfolds over time and requires a team of people.

“Creators are not born with an innate ability to conceive and build $100 million enterprises. They work at it.” — Amy Wilkinson, Founder & CEO of Ingenuity

So what does it take to excel?

First, it’s important to recognize that empowering your team to achieve peak performance begins with defining entrepreneurship performance.

Defining Entrepreneurship Performance

Photo by Hello I’m Nik 🎞 on Unsplash

To define entrepreneurship performance, Blackhawke Behavior Science began by conducting a strategic work analysis, a scientific process of identifying the key tasks, responsibilities, and performance behaviors (i.e., actions people take to contribute to the organization’s goals). As part of this process, we synthesized findings from a century’s worth of research, including 1,000+ scientific studies. We also analyzed non-academic and popular press sources including, magazine articles (e.g., Entrepreneur), blogs (e.g., Seth Godin’s blog), podcasts (e.g., NPR’s How I Built This), and books (e.g., The Lean Startup), documentaries (e.g., Silicon Cowboys), and many other sources written about and by entrepreneurs.

We then analyzed all the results and coded them into behavioral performance categories that differentiate successful entrepreneurship ventures. What emerged from these analyses were eight performance categories, which we call the Eight Pillars of Entrepreneurship:


Behaviors related to opportunity-recognition, conceiving a strategic vision, and selling the idea to others.


Behaviors related to devising and implementing business plans, core business functions, and operational systems.


Behaviors related to setting goals and performance standards, taking initiative, and focusing on goal attainment.


Behaviors related to analyzing and processing information to solve problems and make decisions.


Behaviors related to building and managing relationships, as well as collaborating, coordinating, and communicating with team members.


Behaviors related to managing complicated situations and risks on behalf of the venture, as well as motivating, influencing, and leading others.


Behaviors related to using resources creatively, maintaining competitive advantage, and continuously improving products or services.


Behaviors related to dealing with crises, overcoming obstacles, coping with stress, and managing emotions.

While all of the Eight Pillars are critical for successful entrepreneurship, it’s highly unlikely that a single individual naturally excels in all of them without extensive training and development. And it’s not intended to be that way. Remember, entrepreneurship is a team process, so excellence in these Pillars is best accounted for and distributed among different team members.

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

Ok, so now that we’ve defined performance in entrepreneurship into Pillars, what’s next?

Next, founders and leaders need to set performance expectations for their team.

Setting and Monitoring Performance Expectations & Goals

Performance expectations are the assumptions of leaders about the actions, behaviors, and outcomes they hope to see from employees or team members in order to contribute to the team’s goals. They are critical for entrepreneurial and organizational success because it provides clarity for employees so they know exactly what they need to do to perform well. And an understanding of performance in the entrepreneurial context (i.e., the Eight Pillars of Entrepreneurship) lays the foundation for performance expectations. Specifically, it allows the following vital steps:

  1. Set and communicate performance expectations

Your team needs to know what you expect of them for each category. In other words, unless you tell your team very clearly what good performance is and looks like, they won’t know.

2. Develop and monitor key performance indicators for each Pillar

Improving performance also requires that you track and measure performance over time so you can identify opportunities for growth. It also provides a way for your team to know how well they are performing.

3. Identify areas for growth and improvement

Once you understand where your team is experiencing performance friction, it will be easier to diagnose, address, and improve performance.

Over the next few months, we will publish several blogs that:

  • Dive deeply into the Eight Pillars of Entrepreneurship and their associated behaviors
  • Explain how an individuals’ make up of psychological traits enable or hinder these behaviors
  • Provide real-world examples of high-performance
  • Recommend ways to align your team members’ strengths and weaknesses with the Pillars

Visit Blackhawke’s Medium publication, From I-O to IPO, to learn more about how industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology science can be applied to help startups increase performance and accelerate growth.



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