Ride face first down a slippery track at uncomfortably high speeds. If you make it down successfully, do it again. Fast. Scary. No, not the skeleton luge. I’m talking about starting a company.
OK, perhaps this comparison is a bit far-fetched. The sport’s first organized competition took place in the late 1800’s in Switzerland. People have been starting enterprises since civilization began. Back in Switzerland riders raced down the frozen road and the winner received a bottle of champagne. If you win with a company you can afford champagne for life. When you race down the chute in your skeleton sled, the path is cleared for you. You get to practice out of the public eye. You are protected with a helmet and a cool, slick suit. When you start a company, obstacles are thrown in your path by the competition. Everyone is watching. Cool, slick suits are frowned upon. It is, however, a good idea to wear a helmet.
I am not an expert at starting companies. But I have a story to tell. I am working in a start-up company now called Grabit, Inc. and have been on a steep learning curve. And I’ve lived in Silicon Valley for most of my adult life. Here, one can easily observe that starting a company takes guts, perseverance and a willingness to plunge without all of the information. Oh, and it is good to have a brilliant idea.
Summing up some advice based on my early experiences and observations:
- Learn fast. There isn’t time to study all of the options. Thank goodness for the internet. Learn from others. Gather information quickly. Make decisions fast based on what you can learn fast. Recently, I’ve had to make a call on a Product Life cycle Management (PDM) system for my new company. This decision could have taken months and could have been complicated. Instead, we relied on recommendations, best practices and low entry cost. If the decision is not a good one it can be undone and we can go on quickly. If it is the right decision we will be well on our way.
- Pick the right team. Synergy is your goal. The group that is put together should be greater than the sum of the parts. The skills are important but the ability to work together is more important. At Grabit we have formed a team that works together well. Egos are in check and everyone pitches in.
- Consider culture and pace. In the first few months of a company the culture and pace is established. Will the office be casual or formal? Will meetings start on time? What is acceptable dress code? Will people work on the weekends? Is work done in the evenings or on weekends? How does the group celebrate together? The imprint made at the beginning is hard to change. Purposefully driving values and norms will give you what you want in the longer term. We are “pot-lucking” monthly before our lunchtime staff meeting. This breaking of bread brings people together to share something personal. It is building community.
- Don’t spend too much money. Don’t overdo the stuff. Grabit’s used furniture isn’t elegant but it is perfectly functional. Shop for deals. Pay as you go for services to keep the risk down. Set an example as leaders in a new company. Fly coach and keep the frill factor low. It is all about cash. Start with careful investment, grow the value and options will open for later stages.
- Spend enough money. There is a time when it does makes sense to spend money and that is when it will accelerate your time to volume (TTV) or greatly lower your risk. The decision can be made by calculating net present value (NPV) but the calculation is an estimate so can be jiggered to give you the answer you are looking for. Use you gut to balance cheap with reasonable. At Grabit we are trying multiple materials paths simultaneously in order to optimize the product while minimizing the time.
- Don’t confuse a brilliant idea with a product to sell. Designing something isn’t equivalent to building something and building one isn’t the same is as manufacturing in volume. Launching a product involves creating a controlled, documented design, picking parts and suppliers, developing a process, controlling costs and then marketing to, selling to and satisfying customers. Back to point #2, the team dynamic is critical. It takes a cross-functional team to ship a product. The CEO of Grabit understands this need and has brought in a cross-functional team to drive functional threads simultaneously. I am working on the supply chain design now so that we will ramp efficiently later.
- Eschew obfuscation. Or in other words, keep it simple. The most successful companies focus on a few things and knock them out of the park. Grabit’s technology can be used in multiple ways. We are focusing on a narrow set of applications in order to thoroughly solve those problems before moving to a broader set. It is tempting to answer all inquiries but deciding what NOT to do is as important as deciding what we WILL do.
- Enjoy the ride. Given that you will work hard to start a business it should be enjoyed. Find the joy in creating something that wasn’t there before. Make your mark. Stick your face out front and sail down the track.
Lizzy Yarnold of Great Britain won the gold medal during the women’s skeleton at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. She trained hard and competed well. Like Lizzy, if you are fortunate enough to be part of a start-up team, face into the challenge and enjoy the ride.
Leap and the net will appear Zen Saying
When I was 20 years old I landed a Cessna 152 on a runway in Pontiac, Michigan. It blew me away. I was by myself in this flying machine and no one but me could get it to the ground safely. I knew what to do because I had practiced with an instructor many times. But actually doing it was a thrill like few others in my life. This wasn’t a requirement for a class. It wasn’t a necessary skill to propel me in my chosen field. It wasn’t even very logical to learn this “flying thing”. It was expensive, time-consuming, and even a little risky. But I love airplanes, always have. So when I had a chance to learn to fly, I didn’t hesitate.
The world in which we live gives us opportunities all of the time to get outside of our comfort zones. The rate of change in our work lives can be overwhelming. Leadership changes, mergers, acquisitions, change in strategy, downsizing, right-sizing and re-engineering….stop the roller coaster, I wanna get off! But this crazy carnival ride provides us with learning opportunities. Our ability to learn and evolve has never been more taxed but this is a good thing if we rev up our brains and get going. I’ve put together some helpful hints for embracing the cycle of learning on and off the job.
- Monitor your level of “stretch” – If you have been in a job for a while you are likely to get comfortable. You know your job. You understand the ins and outs. You know who to call. It is time to change jobs. This doesn’t have to be a new company or really even a whole new job. You can take on a project or work on something that is cross-functional. Moving laterally in a company is often encouraged. Climbing sideways up the “lattice” rather than simply climbing up the ladder is a wise way to build a base of experience. Don’t allow yourself to get bored in a job. If you have to leave a company to keep up the rate of learning – do it. Shame on any company for letting that happen.
- Don’t be afraid to ask why – We should have learned this as kids but grown-ups tend to lose their curiosity. It is ok to explore and not be satisfied with an answer. Even as a manager or even an executive it is impossible to understand it all and your team will appreciate honest questions and a willingness to be taught. This technique of asking why is a valid “lean” principal. Ask the question five times to get to the real root of an issue.
- Lean into the fear – Most of us get butterflies when asked to present in front of an audience. Some of us get nauseous. Some love the rush. Fear of presenting in front of an audience is one of the most common fears out there. But there are other fears in the work place. It is hard to speak up in a large meeting especially when your ideas conflict with others. It is hard to bring up an issue with a boss especially when it is personal or controversial. It is scary to take a job where you are not the expert. Leaning into the fear can be the right thing to do if your quest is positive. It will teach you about your limits and your strengths. You will learn about yourself and you will see how great you are. If you fail…you will learn even more.
- Allow for ambiguity – When you are sorting out a new area and you don’t have a full understanding it is important to let the unknowns rest for a time. This is especially true on a new job. It is easy to be discouraged because you don’t get it but slowly but surely the picture will come into focus. During those times of uncertainty the best questions are asked and the most wisdom is offered. You are fresh to the problem. What is “obvious” to many won’t be to you and that is a good thing. Be confused but be ready to absorb new bits of information to help fill in the missing pieces.
- Intuit – This means “to understand or work out by instinct”. This works most of the time and if you are on a steep learning curve for most of your life you need to hone this skill. Given that people who are learners are used to figuring things out and used to gaining information through their many senses, this probably will come naturally.
- Joy in the process – One of the greatest gifts we have as humans is the ability to take on new information. We are able to continue to form new ideas and perspectives and skills throughout our lives. There is plenty of evidence available that the more we use our brains the healthier they will be. My father who is in his eighties is re-learning calculus. Why? The answer is simply that he appreciates math and enJOYs the process. Go for it Dad!
Flying an airplane, sailing a boat, learning how to program in C, understanding differential equations, tackling software defined networking technology…it is all the same. Stretching the brain cells to comprehend something new can be hard but if you embrace it and make learning a lifestyle not a task for school kids, it will turn into a joyous process.
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” Mahatma Gandhi
While crossing the Pacific Ocean recently on one of my many journeys to Asia I paid close attention to the instructions on the screen. The sudden halting to the movie or music comes with a flash on the screen: Pause Programming. On this trip I took note and followed the directions. Usually this sign means nothing to me but on this trip I was trying to make a difficult decision about my career. The symbolism worked for me. Let me explain.
In the movie that is my life things move along rapidly almost without time for reflection. That isn’t a bad thing in normal times but what if I don’t know about the emergency landing instructions or the oxygen masks? There is value in knowing ahead of time what an appropriate exit strategy is. What should trigger a job reconsideration? When should I trade-off loyalty for self-preservation or even for happiness? What are my values and what would compromise them? Giving this some serious thought ahead of a major crisis on the job is wise and saves a lot of time when time is in short supply.
Do I know what cabin I belong in? While in flight you can’t move out of your cabin without breaking the rules. There are always exceptions to the rules so sometimes it is a good idea to seek out the better wine in business class. Doesn’t hurt to ask. But during a “life programming pause” it is important reevaluate my aspirations. Is my goal to be an employee or to work for myself? Do I want to work on a business or in a business? Is my job the focus of my life or do I want to have several things to juggle and develop?
When turbulence comes along in a career it is best to have a plan. Certainly it is a good idea to buckle in and face the issues. Dealing with crisis is a true test of one’s character and it is a test of a company’s real capabilities. Turbulence in a career is both a threat and an opportunity. If you are prepared and safe (financially and with strong networks) it can be either a non-event or a chance to grow.
Finally, when the movie is paused for the landing instructions and for information on the gate and other connecting flights it is good to listen. The career analogy here is to manage transitions before getting there. What is my financial situation? Can I afford to start my own business? Can I take a break and train in a new area? When can I afford to retire and what does that retirement look like? Nurture the network. Who do I know and what do they do? Where do my interests lie and then what can I do to prepare myself for a transition?
Bottom line advice: Pause programming every once in a while. Don’t be caught reacting without the knowledge that is available if you pay attention. Keep yourself up to date on the rules, options, gates of life, destination details. Be ready for change because it is going to come up. Don’t go through life without thinking.
Thinking is the hardest work there is. That is why so few people engage in it. HenryFord