My Advice to Aspiring Entrepreneurs? Build Something!

I’ve been connected or introduced to a handful of aspiring entrepreneurs recently, folks that have lots of work experience, but no experience starting a company from scratch.  And the first question is always the same, “I don’t know how to get started”.

Ten years ago my advice might have been different, likely starting with the creation of a well thought out business plan that you use to raise money around based on the concept and research alone.  But today the costs of starting a business continue to plummet, particularly the costs to actually build a Minimum Viable Product or at least a prototype.  Simplified programming languages, open source code and dramatically reduced cloud-based hosting, processing and storage costs through services like Amazon EC2 and S3 have not only reduced the costs to build, but more important have enabled thousands of entrepreneurs to start businesses without the need for an outside cash infusion.    And there is no better way to share your vision and get others excited about your idea than to physically demonstrate it with a powerful product experience.  Gone are the days of million dollar investments required to get a demonstrable product, complete with features and functionality.

So the answer to the question is simple – Build something that you can use to:

  • Get others to actually use and thus prove value and traction,
  • Share with investors to get them excited about your product vision, and
  • Reduce the “cost of money” if and when you actually do raise capital

But what if you as the entrepreneur don’t have the skills to code a prototype or build a product yourself?  Easy, get immediately integrated into your local tech community events or get networked and find a technical co-founder.  Notice I didn’t say go find a engineer and convince them to build you something on the cheap or even free in exchange for “some shares”.  Rather, do your homework on the market opportunity, tell a compelling story and share your vision in a way that gets them excited and committed, even if part-time, to the success of the product which will inevitably require lots of iterations to get “right”.  Why should they be a co-founder?  Because engineers are the world’s scarce startup resource and, in my opinion, often the most underestimated from a strategic standpoint given the importance of technology in company building.

It’s really a subject of a future post and I digress, just go get a technical co-founder and thank me later.

Avoiding Complacency

This past week I sent the email below (verbatim) to my leadership team, not as a critique, but as a challenge.   I really find my own personal motivation goes in cycles and I have to fight through this issue from time to time.  The title of the email was the same as this post, “Avoiding Complacency”.


Guys, I wanted to share a simple technique I use every week to ensure I’m staying motivated and focused on the right stuff.  To be clear, this is not a critique on our/your work ethic, commitment or anything else other than my normal “challenging” the team to stay awesome.  I recognize everyone is working hard. 

Candidly, one of the issues I personally have to wrestle with is avoiding complacency, becoming “comfortable” in my role and most important, losing a sense of urgency and paranoia that I believe is critical for any startup to succeed – the leadership team simply has to feel an almost overwhelming sense of urgency and belief that if we don’t get better fast, someone else is going to kill us.
One of the things I do every Sunday night before the week begins is to answer the question, in writing “In addition to all the crap already on my calendar this week, what am I personally going to do, this week, to move the needle for the company?”
We should all take this view and we should push our teams to take this view.  On a weekly basis, its not sufficient for us to “move our existing, albeit important, workstreams closer to completion”.  We each must actually accomplish something, each week, that is foundational to our success, that we can all see as a big step forward, that those looking in (investors, press, customers) would say – yeah, that’s big.
Now, is this realistically going to happen each week?  No, but it HAS to be a goal, a focus that each of us holds each other accountable to.  I want us to ask each other this question and I welcome you saying “Rob, what did you do this week to move the needle?”

The Hardest Decision That No One is Forcing You to Make, But You Should

One of the inevitable truths about startups and building a real business from scratch, is that you rarely get it right from the start.  Meaning, most assumptions made in the beginning about the business model, target market, customer profile, product features, etc will change over time as you build, learn and adjust.  And this cycle often repeats itself several times over the course of the first few years.

Although the decisions to change the product in a different direction, or to abandon sales efforts in a particular segment or to completely pivot the business model are extremely difficult, especially since the team is so invested in confirming rather than disproving hypotheses, these decisions pale in comparison to the most difficult decision – letting go of good people, employees who are top or strong performers but now have a skill mismatch.

To be clear, I’m not talking about terminating non-performers.  If you can’t do this as an entrepreneur within the first 90 days of someone’s employment, then you should try another line of work.  I’m talking about terminating, in many cases, top performers in their trade, its just that their trade is no longer a burning, urgent requirement to build your business based on how requirements are evolving.

Why so ruthless you say?  Because you won’t have room on the payroll for the skills you really need, you will get marginal contribution from top performers that are skill mismatched, and you are increasing risk that you won’t get the traction you need before you run out of money or a competitor eats your lunch.  When you have 5, 10 or 20 employees, every single person must be the best that exists and must gel culturally.  Everyone in the company should demand this level of performance and since “like attracts like”, it makes recruiting only the best that much easier.

Listen, I don’t take any satisfaction for decisions like this that impact people’s lives so deeply, in fact I don’t sleep for nights before it happens, but the consequence of inaction is too large.  The key is to handle these terminations in a dignified, empathetic way.

One last point.  As you look at your team and recognize that there are several folks that unfortunately aren’t cutting the mustard, let go of them all at once.  And when you do it, embrace the remaining team and reinforce that they are the foundation for the company going forward.  In my experience, top performers recognize when there is a lackluster contribution by others and will have more respect for a tough decision that actually breathes more life into the organization by creating cash runway and room to hire the right people.

The Fine Line Between Seizing Opportunity and Losing Focus

In the early stages of any business, proving that customers are willing to pay for your product is essential.  What makes it tough is that no one knows who you are (no brand), the product is basic (feature-less) and the business model is certainly not stable (not sure if you can make money).  This last point is one of the more difficult things to figure out as a startup – which markets do we serve, who are my customers and how much do we charge them?  You may think that you know these answers early, but in my experience you are rarely right out of the gate.  You run customer experiments, develop hypotheses, test them, then adjust.  This process can take months and really requires discipline to ensure decisions along the way are informed by market feedback.

And just when you think you’ve got the right industry, segment and customer profile nailed, you get an inbound inquiry from a “big fish” in a different market where the application of your product *might* prove valuable.  But, serving this tangential market would require significant investment of time, energy and mind share to create the delivery capability required to be successful – in product, technology and/or people.  The temptation to chase these improbable leads can be maddening, particularly when there is uncertainty about your current target market hypothesis and you have someone who is interesting in exploring a partnership with you that is unsolicited.

My approach to these tangential inbounds?  Only pursue them if there is –

  1. A direct application for your product or technology with minimal customization or feature development,
  2. At least two interested (willing to pay) customers in the same market – which means you may have to do some outreach to uncover the second, and
  3. Enough resources in the company to continue proving or disproving the target market hypothesis without undue distraction.

I doubt there are many big inbound opportunities that meet all three of these criteria.  That said, I don’t want to confuse chasing a tangential market (Losing Focus) with pivoting your business as a result of experimentation and testing in your target market (Seizing Opportunity).  The latter is a process that unfolds over time as you iterate with customers and prospects while the former is a “leap” and significant investment of time and resources to address a perceived or real need in a market you don’t currently service and probably know very little about.

What makes this decision process a “fine line”?  As a startup, there is likely a high degree of uncertainty that you can be successful in your TARGET market, so ANY opportunity that presents itself can be deceivingly attractive.  Don’t be fooled, persist and perservere until and if your target market customers and prospects disprove your hypotheses, thus requiring a data-driven decision to seek alternative paths.

Just make sure you keep the phone number for the “big fish”.

Back on the Grid

Wow, it’s been an extremely intense past 2.5 months in Startupland.  I haven’t written since December and I really miss the therapy in it.  Why no writing?  I’ve been channeling all my professional energy and mind share into working through a critical stage in my company’s development (which we are still in), and I’ve been hesitant to write about it transparently given the confidential nature of the issues I face everyday.  While I’m a huge fan of complete transparency, it’s not my place to share these details (despite my desire to do so), especially the unflattering, unsexy, fall-on-your-face realities of building a company when partners and customers have access to them.  So I’ve struggled with what to write about and in what level of detail such that its useful and insightful and, most important, so that others can learn from the tough stuff.

But I’m back!  And committed to striking a balance in what I share.  In the past 8 weeks, I literally have 20 topics listed that correlate directly to challenges, learnings, failings, big wins and the emotional roller-coaster that is my life right now.  I can point to several days when I had feelings of unsurpassed confidence and outright despair – in the same day!

I’m anxious to share more and will over the coming days and weeks, at least once each week.

Don’t Go It Alone, Get Out of Your Bubble

Since I’ve moved to Austin and joined BlackLocus roughly 6 weeks ago, I’ve probably had 30+ meetings with individuals outside the company.  Why?  Because without exception I learn something from every one of these meetings that will help me be a better leader and reduce risk of failure during this critical phase of the company’s development when there are foundational decisions we are making every day.  You may be thinking, “Geez Taylor, why don’t you just put your head down and get to work instead of networking your way out of business”.  There’s clearly a balance here and I’m not suggesting that you should network for networking’s sake, but rather identify folks that have specific and relevant experience dealing with the issues most pressing right now in your business.  And by the way, it need not be successful experience, there is a ton to be learned from other people’s mistakes.  Wouldn’t you rather learn from someone else’s setback than your own?  Whether its the need to raise money, or perhaps figure out a go-to-market strategy, or even how to tackle a tough engineering problem, there are likely people in your extended network that are ahead of where you are today and have navigated, either successfully or unsuccessfully, the urgent problem you have to solve.  In either case, that perspective is valuable as input into your decision.

Now there is a consequence to seeking multiple points of view and getting so much data as input.  Ultimately you have to formulate a point of view, have conviction and make the tough decision.  And doing so with so much external data can be more difficult and confusing particularly if there are a lot of disparate viewpoints on the same issue or problem.  But that’s what leadership is!  Putting your ego aside, realizing you aren’t the master of everything, seeking external viewpoints and data, then distilling it all and having the courage to make a decision and execute against it.

Early Stage Priority Confusion

During the early stages in a stressful, lonely place I call StartupLand, it can be overwhelming determining where to focus scarce resources, both people and money.  There’s endless product issues to address – customer features, performance, reliability, scalability – and if you have a Minimum Viable Product and a bit of luck there are existing customers to support and retain.  Add to the mix the need to both acquire more customers and add other strategic partners to complement your product.  Don’t forget recruiting, if you are funded and enjoy the ability to grow your team, sourcing and interviewing talent can literally take up 30-50% of everyone on the team in the early days.  Oh, and your Board and investors will require some care and feeding through reporting and monthly or quarterly meetings.  That’s a lot to juggle if you have a small team (5-15) trying to tackle each of these priorities.

So how and where do you focus scarce resources?

By being ruthless about both prioritizing and sequencing those priorities where maximum traction can be proven in the shortest period of time.  And by traction I mean proving that customers will buy your product at a price that has a path to sustainability.  In my experience, it means allocating resources in 2 primary areas in the early days:

  1. Harden the Minimum Viable Product.  Specifically, ensure the product 1) has only the most basic feature set, defined as the minimum set a customer is willing to pay for, and 2) is minimally performant, reliable and scalable meaning just sufficient in all 3 categories to retain customers and enable a six-month window of customer growth.  Probably the single biggest pitfall to avoid is allocating resources to make your product more feature rich than it has to be simply because you think your customer must have those features, all at the expense of making a more basic product work flawlessly.  Your customers probably don’t need those features yet and if you have any paying customers, then you’ve proven they don’t.
  2. Get and maintain momentum in sales/customer acquisition.  If one customer is willing to pay for your product as it exists today, then find another one willing to pay.  Then another.  There is nothing that defines traction more effectively than increasing customers and revenue.  You can be unprofitable and raise money with customer traction.  You can offset costs and hire more people with customer traction.  The world of possibilities to tweak, market and scale your business open up with customer traction.

At the end of the day, these are the only things that truly matter for an early stage startup.  Build the most basic product that you can sell, and then sell it.  And if you can sell it, then don’t build custom features, in fact don’t build any features beyond the product you can already sell until you have more resources on board.  Don’t harden the product for performance, reliability and scalability that you’ll need two years from now, harden it enough to get through the next six months of sales.

Sure, there’s lots to do from this point, but until #1 & 2 are achieved, nothing else matters, so don’t be tantalized to spend the cycles working on other high value, but optional workstreams.  Be ruthless.

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