Tuesday, August 31, 2010

When Starting Your Startup, Don't Count on Anyone to Help You - Except You

Starting a startup can be a completely exhilarating and mind boggling experience at once - especially for first timers.

I remember when we were laying the initial groundwork for Chrometa, our software startup, as far back as 2007 (time sure flies!) - I got hammered with advice from all angles.  Tough thing was, I had no clue who I should listen to, and who I should ignore.

Startups are exciting by nature.  There’s the allure of doing something completely new.  Of getting a business off the ground by simply rubbing a couple of sticks together and hoping for a spark.  And of course, everyone thinks of the vast riches generated by Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other past Silicon Valley startups, and thinks that - just maybe - your venture will “take off” in similarly spectacular fashion.

It’s very fun - and also very easy to lose your head and perspective.  My initial thoughts (for our first year or so) often centered around the grandiose potential for our time tracking product.  We hadn’t yet built a fully-working product, of course, but man, were there ever a lot of potential markets we could tap into!

Playing into this excitement, I found that many people surrounding our company were offering to “help us out” in one way, shape, or form.  Big shot attorneys, who normally wouldn’t have given me the time of day at my old job, were now offering to defer their fees and introduce us to potential investors.  Software resellers we spoke with talked about the tremendous potential they saw for pitching our product to their client base.  Big company executives waxed enthusiastically about the future opportunity to roll out our product across their entire 100,000 person organizations - upon successful completion of an initial test pilot!

Things looked so good, I could barely keep track of the many ways Chrometa was going to take off!  

  • “Our big shot attorney - man, he’s connected with all the big VC’s in the Valley!  Fundraising is gonna be a snap!”
  • “And when this reseller gets ramped up, they’re gonna sell an insane number of licenses for us!”
  • “Plus we’ve got this enterprise deal cooking - we’ll get a case study, their logo on our website, and a big license deal from our second stage roll out!”

There were many, many more “killer opps” in the hopper for us.  It was a tremendously exciting time.

So guess how many actually panned out for us?  

Zip.  Zero.  Nada.  None at all!

But - we’re still here - alive and kicking - in 2010!  We’ve got a growing and paying customer base, one product to market, and another one that we are very excited about on the way.  

And no thanks to ANY of these initial “killer opps” panned out for us...how can that be?

What I FINALLY learned - and not a moment too soon (otherwise I might not be writing to your today) - is that when building a startup, nobody can help you but you.  You are the one who has to get it done.

Your attorney will probably not be able to help you raise capital.  The reality is he sends too many deals to his too few investor contacts every week, so they largely ignore what he pitches them.

Your hot reseller might have another “blue sky” brainstorm meeting with you - and then they’ll go back to doing what they’ve always done to make money.  They’re not going to figure out how to sell a brand new product for the very first time to a new market.  They’ve got easier, more established ways to make a buck.

And your hot enterprise customer may complete your pilot - but let’s get real, they’re not going to roll out your alpha or beta product company-wide.  You’re dreaming.  They just want a cheap or free fix to their current pain point.  Your pilot provided that.  So they’re all set.

These examples may come off as cynical - but I am speaking from experience in all 3 cases.  There are other cases I could cite along this them - but you get the idea.  Since this is just one person’s experience, please remember that there are exceptions to every case I’m listing here.  

But I do think that for your own sanity and planning, you should assume the scenarios I’m listing here would apply to you too.  Because, odds are, these are the numbers that are going to hit when the wheel stops.

And that’s OK - it’s OK that nobody who says they are going to help you, and make you rich, and build your company.  To paraphrase the late, great Harry Browne - they don’t owe you anything. [Editor's note: Brett Owens, You and I could debate the "greatness" of the late Harry Browne. Please note that the link to H.B. org. is not an endorsement of his politics. Please read my post, THE LIBERTARIAN MOVEMENT, for my take on the Libertarian Party.]

And in fairness, nobody owes you help - or an introduction - or a fat license deal with their company.  Each individual you encounter will always be looking out for his or her own best interest.  That’s simply human nature.

The good news is, the sooner you can accept this, and become constantly aware of it, the sooner you can free up your valuable time for more productive endeavors that actually move your startup forward.  I know it was a big moment and realization for myself.

So instead of jumping from phone meeting to phone meeting - or worse (from a time management standpoint) - driving from meeting to meeting, talking about grandiose partnerships, deals, and future plans that had little (or no) chance of materializing - I could spend my entire day on the few critical levers that would actually determine the success or failure of our startup.

And for a product company, these critical levers are:

  1. Building a product that people find useful
  2. Tweaking that product into something that people will pay for
  3. Figuring out how to acquire new customers in a cost effective way
Rinse, repeat, and so on.

When I think about all of the in-person meetings and phone calls that I had with people who could “potentially” help us in our early days, I have to laugh.  It was a learning experience, and I didn’t have a clue about what I needed to be focusing in on.  So I chased every shiny windmill in hopes of finding the silver bullet that would set us on the path to greatness!

So if you are a fellow first-time entrepreneur - first of all, congratulations!  Secondly, I’d encourage you to focus on one of the three things I mentioned above, at all times.  Consider anything else to be a distraction.  Your time is your most valuable resource - it’s a bit of a cliche, but it’s the truth - you have to protect it with a vengeance!  

Be skeptical, but of course polite, to people who claim they can help you.  They don’t owe you anything - but in turn, you don’t owe them, either.  You’re all squared up.  So don’t let them hold any promises over you...odds are they can’t deliver on them, anyway.  You’re the one who ultimately has to “make it happen” - so go out there and get it done!