One of the startups in our workspace concluded this past week that all the gold is indeed in California and decided to head west. They have a plan with scope and consequence; but it’s a double bottom line concept, for which the field of potential investors is pretty narrow. After being asked to present to an appropriate pitch session in the Valley in a few weeks, they realized they also had good prospects in several other cities between Atlanta and San Francisco. The solution: Road Trip! Their two key people are driving cross country to visit with all their prospects. It’s not uncommon for startups to seek funding in the Bay Area, but this may be the first time I’ve seen one turn that goal into a transcontinental road trip, in the winter no less.
That’s no easy mission. I did a solo great circle of Dixie last summer, about 2000 miles but with numerous stops along the way to visit family and friends and attend a GT board meeting. I rather enjoy those once in a while, but I have the comfort of listening to the Elvis channel all they way and having total freedom of movement subject only to traffic conditions. Traveling with one or more business companions adds a layer of effort and very little escape from grinding on the issues of the moment. I applaud them for their dedication and energy in taking this on. I think I should send them a checkered flag for their selfie at their final destination.
The point of this anecdote is that to engage in a startup is to accept a steep challenge. It’s necessary to be creative and to exert yourself in extraordinary ways to achieve your goal. I’ve met with quite a few companies in recent weeks, and I’m observing first hand all the issues they have to tackle to stay on course. They’re all familiar. Usually the technical hurdles are the easiest to conquer. They may require considerable brainpower, but none of them are basic research where the outcome is highly uncertain. They’re working on engineering problems, and engineers can build solutions. The fun begins in trying to convert those solutions into businesses. The work gets much harder when one is trying to match the product to a market and confronting real customers, whether through direct selling, channels, or purely online acquisition. You want your customers to behave in certain predictable and logical ways that match your finely crafted financial plan and product design, but rarely is that exactly what happens. Catalyzing any change of buying behavior is a tall order, and you’re in a game where competition can surprise you from all directions and at all times.
Things will go wrong. I’ve heard entrepreneurs say many times things like: “That deal fell through. Am I jinxed? Everything seems more difficult than it ought to be.” Well, if you decided to be a triathlete, don’t grouse about the exertion and the pain. You signed up for that, and you’re motivated to achieve the finish line and enjoy the elation that comes after. Startups are quite analogous to such endurance sports, but you may have to endure 5 years instead of 5 hours to get to a reward.
Things will go right too. It’s not all a process of deferred gratification. There will be many small and some large victories along the way. There will be reasons to celebrate. If you have something viable that deserves to succeed, and you have perseverance, you’ll get to enjoy the old proverb that for every door that closes another one opens. Luck will sometimes swing in your favor. Part of the startup success formula is being able to recognize those lucky moments and act on them.
There’s no miracle salve for all startup woes, but I’ll offer a few suggestions to help you cope:
Start every day with gratitude. You’ve chosen to do what you are doing; you have gifts; you have the grit to see it through. Be thankful for each new day, and be mindful of the big picture that overshadows the small daily disturbances.
Be honest with yourself and your team. You can’t fix problems your ego won’t acknowledge. You can fix them more easily with help from your team. Deal with things as they happen, and move on. Sometimes a solution necessitates replacing a friendly colleague. When you reach that conclusion, don’t dally for an hour in dismissing and replacing. Trust me; unpleasant matters like that weigh heavily on any leader until handled, and the passage of time never makes them any easier.
Work hard, but work on the right things. I am surrounded by people who have enormous energy and stamina but who know how to draw the line when it comes to time wasting issues. You’re not in a legislative body that talks everything to death and even then is unlikely to get anything done. You are in an action setting where every discussion counts. If you and your team spend more than 15 minutes going in circles on a seemingly intractable problem, perhaps it’s time to take a break, reset the conversation, reassign the problem, or just make a judgment call and move forward. If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ve seen me write often that the one thing you can lose but never recover is your time. Knowing how to apply your time to the right tasks according to the right priorities is a valuable life skill.
Define your mission and stick to it. Vacillation is the root of many a startup failure. Unless you are hiding under a rock, you’ll be exposed to some new tangent every day. If you fall prey to those distractions, you’ll soon have a very long task list, be very busy, but see progress in your core business come to a halt. Discerning among all those tangents which are relevant opportunities and those which are out of bounds is a key decision power you must constantly exercise.
Read my essay from two weeks prior and work fast. No need to elaborate further.
Avoid making things unnecessarily hard. Curate a team that shares your mindset of building, doing, acting, iterating, selling, and delivering. Locate them in the right city and the right facility where their performance is uninhibited by their environment. Don’t hire your fourth cousin once removed for a job that’s she’s not qualified to do. Be respectful of your people. For goodness sake, don’t be guilty of mistaking business and pleasure in the work setting. The news of today has brought that to top of mind, but I vividly recall my very first day on my very first job in 1970 at the old AT&T after my graduation from Georgia Tech. My supervisor gave me only three rules: “Don’t mess with the money, the company property, or the women.” That is not a verbatim quote of his more colorful language, but, with only that orientation, work commenced.
Remember that if the task weren’t hard, anybody could do it. If you persevere to a successful exit in a startup, you will join a relatively exclusive club. Yes, there may be a financial windfall, but that’s secondary. If you undertake a startup just for the money, odds are good you’ll never see it. Money follows constant attention to good product, good management, and good customers. You can squander your winnings in many ways, but you’ll always have your membership in that club that makes it much easier to do it all over again.
Perhaps that’s the key takeaway. Begin your entrepreneurial career with your second startup.