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.