Startup Part Three: Forget Your Lessons

skiing in snowstormStarting a company is like skiing in a snow storm. Starting a company is like scraping gum off of your shoe. Starting a company is like riding a unicycle for the first time. Starting a company is the most fun and frustrating thing you can choose to do. If you thought that the process was straight forward and that you could simply use what you know to launch a company, then think again.  It will turn the lessons you’ve learned on their head.

I’ve been part of 3 company start-ups. Each one has reinforced the same hard lessons. The similarities are what I will talk about although truthfully, you can’t count on history or other people’s stories to predict your own start-up experience. Knowing that you can’t know how it will go is the surest wisdom I can share. What I’ve covered below are pieces of advice that ring true to those I’ve talked with in the start-up world.

  • Patience is a questionable virtue – Larry Page did not tolerate debate at Google when the company was young. When discussion came up his typical response was “just do it.”  When you are starting a company it is your baby. It is the most important thing you are doing and of course your product is the best there is. Why aren’t people returning email or answering your calls? Why don’t they see the value in what you have to offer? Whether you are selling a service or a product or an idea, it is important to keep in mind that you are one of many “interrupts” for your potential customer or investor. So patiently and politely waiting for a response is the only logical response. Or is it? Because you are competing with others for attention it isn’t good enough to be one of the crowd. Consider how you can stand out and be noticed. Connect personally with the right people. Use your network to make an introduction. Put a pitch together that “wows”. Go after it each and every day. When a targeted VC didn’t  answer emails or phone calls, we found a connection who made a call. A meeting was set-up. Persistence and impatience paid off.
  • Be a control freak – At Apple, Google, Ford and Amazon the founders were control freaks. They were in the piddly little details. Steve fanatically cared about color and finish. Larry eliminated all project managers to be closer to the engineers. Henry designed conveyor belt production lines and Jeff obsessively intervenes for the customer. While this doesn’t scale easily as a company grows it can be helpful as a company launches. Be a perfectionist and pay attention to the details. I’ve reviewed and rejected PO’s under $100. Enough of those make a dent and the message sent is that every penny counts.
  • Play the short game –  Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia needed some cash and so rented out their loft during a busy conference week in San Francisco. Instead of using Craigslist they built a site, called it Airbnb and made $240. Then requests came in for more and the company launched. “One day at a time” should be the mantra. Dealing with today in the best way you are able is the key to success for a company just starting out. It is easy to feel discouraged by the daunting tasks in front of you. Step forward and beat those problems down to keep the progress going and you will look back over time and be amazed at what has been accomplished. Optimism is a characteristic that is very valuable when starting something new. There will be naysayers. They can even be family members, customers or investors. Don’t allow the negative inputs to weigh you down. Take the information on-board and look at the glass half full. At my last start-up company we launched a product and then stopped and pivoted to a new product. One day to the next my problems were flipped on their head.
  • Don’t be so analytical – Uber never should have worked. In 2008 Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp were in Paris talking about how hard it is to get a cab in San Francisco. There were over 1000 taxi medallions issued in SF at the time. Too much competition. Too many obstacles. Nope.  As an engineer and operations executive I’ve always led with analysis and facts. It is good to have the data before plunging forward. It is also impossible to have all of the data when you are talking about a business that is not off the ground in a market that doesn’t yet exist. Sometimes you have to estimate, extrapolate or imagine the future state in order to put a financial plan, cash flow or P&L together. You will be wrong. Acknowledge that and stay light on your feet.  As Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” I’ve modeled a monthly P&L out 5 years knowing that our ability to predict the next month was shaky. It calmed our investors and secured a Series B round.
  • Contradictions do not need resolution – Steve Jobs was himself a contradiction. He was both a hippy /Buddhist and a billionaire businessman. Many creative founders are a combination of genius and awkward. There is usually conflict in the beginning with people, ideas and styles.  What works in a start-up might not scale to a larger company but strong personalities with unreasonable obsessions are what launch companies. I’ve bitten my tongue many a time when my first response was a logical rebuttal to an illogical founder’s request. And then it turns out, the founder was right.

When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.    Henry Ford

Marcy Alstott is an Operations and Supply Chain Consultant with diverse product and technology expertise, multinational management credentials and extensive transformation know-how. She can be reached at malstott@opstrakconsulting.com. Her website is www.opstrakconsulting.com.

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