I’ve been fortunate to work at some fantastic companies, more than 8 over my 20-year career. The ones I’ve enjoyed most were start-ups that were fast paced, both in their own change and evolution but also due to the competitive, rapidly changing technology trends that they were built upon. Three specific companies are top-of-mind when I think about my experience in startups. InFocus and Pixelworks were each technology-hardware companies that evolved from garage-based ideas to Oregon-based IPOs, Enuclia was a technology-hardware company that evolved from idea, to high-profile VC-funded company, to doors closed (ouch). But hey, 2 out of 3 isn’t bad.
When I look back on each of these start-ups, they all had 3 characteristics in common:
- They were solving a difficult problem that was built on some form of technology that provided their “secret sauce.” Secret sauce is something unique to your company and difficult for others to replicate in a matter of months (this used to be measured in years but the world is getting much, much faster).
- They were aimed at large, growing markets. When I mention large, I mean a market measured using Ms (millions) or even better when the market(s) are measured with a “B” or a “T.”
- They were easily explained solutions. Why is this so important? Because if you are planning to grow a start-up from a few early believers to many people then you’ll likely find you’ll need to get highly efficient at explaining what you do to numerous audiences every day.
So what caused two to succeed and the third to fail? First, as a serial entrepreneur, I must say that I learned more from my failure (Enuclia) in 2.5 years than I did in college and graduate school combined. I think you’ll find that entrepreneurs view failures as lessons more than anything else (if not, we’d all quit before we unlocked success). Hard knocks tend to do that.
What I learned from these companies is that no matter how simple or complex your start-up idea, it will require an immense amount of hard work to transform it into a reality. That hard work will start with people. They will be the most valuable and expensive asset your start-up will ever have. To maximize your team’s (people) return, you’ll need to figure out how best to communicate quickly so that your five person start -up can react and stay in sync with the many changes and “aha” moments you’ll face.
When (and if) you do this well, you’ll quickly find that your 5-person firm is now 50 people. And you’ll need to work even harder to stay in sync to remain nimble, but your team will have an even greater number of ideas and opinions; which is fantastic if you can harness without slowing your execution (this sounds easy but it is incredibly hard). If you do this right (or near right) again and again (5 to 50 people, 50 to 100, 100 to 200, etc), I’ve found you can unlock great success (product success, market success, financial success, career success, etc).
When working within a growing start-up that is providing a solution to a rapidly growing (and therefore ever-changing) market and customer base, the other hint I’ve found to be helpful is to have a willingness to iterate early and often. This applies to interactions with your own internal teams and your prospects and customers alike. Why is this? Because if you decide to limit communications in an effort to “be faster” what you’ll find is you’re missing out on what could be priceless insights and data points that could have influenced or steered your solution. That adjustment or refinement could eventually make the difference between a flop and hit. You can read countless papers on how best to build and maintain an “agile organization” but one of Jama’s current Board Members said it best, “it’s always better to be 80% right, than to be 100% wrong.” You can interpret this sentence many ways but I translate it to build, show, polish and repeat versus build, polish, and then show.
And this is my final lesson or advice: start or join a start-up that is doing something you know something about and care deeply to solve or improve. If you do this, you’ll not only find yourself jumping out of bed early each morning in an effort to race to work (versus dread it), but you’ll be surrounded by employees, customers and partners that share you passion. Good luck all…here’s to you founding or joining the next “big thing.”
Taking the above lessons into account, I believe that is why I’m so excited to be involved with Jama Software today. We are tackling a hard problem (product delivery), within a large market (trillions of dollars are invested in R&D efforts annually) and our value is easily explained (our customers are some of the largest, most innovative companies in the world and they are all trying to take an idea to become a reality. The problem we are solving is the very problem I experienced at my previous companies: when working with people across complex, rapidly changing projects, communication breaks down and surprises pop-up, creating delays, rework, churn, etc. Yet with Jama, we help these global teams (think 10,000+ employees building the next iPhone, Space Station, Processor, etc) save between 10-20% of their project’s schedule through improved collaboration). Sounds easy but there is plenty of secret sauce…trust me.