Transitioning from a big company with a standard day to day routine to my first start up, I didn’t know how or even if I’d be successful in a startup. It’s a transition from a structured world with so-called best practices in place to an unstructured day with a successful approach to business yet to be defined. There is a vision and goal but minimal direction and it’s up to the people of the business to find their own direction to the goal. There is no right or wrong way to get there and not everyone will figure it out. I’ve been fortunate to work with some phenomenal visionaries, executives, and peers that I have learned so much from including three major characteristics that make successful startup people. If you are thinking about joining a startup, hopefully this will provide some insight as it is certainly something I look for when building out a team.
Constant Optimism: Lessons From Wile E Coyote
Pessimism can single handedly ruin a company. There is no doubt that in growing a small business, things will go wrong. Your product or service will fail more than once. You’ll invest money into a marketing campaign that provides zero dividends. Some things just flat out won’t work. Wile E. Coyote has never and probably will never catch the roadrunner, but he consistently comes up with ideas and is optimistic that each one will get him to his goal. Granted none of them work, but it doesn’t take away from his optimism for his next idea. In my second start up, I walked into one of the most negative business people I have ever met. His frustration with the product, the lost deals, quality of leads, etc was not just painful to listen to, but was contagious to team to where others started to have a negative outlook on the company as a whole from a single person’s attitude.
Optimism is just as potent and having people that will be positive, know that from every failure comes an opportunity to succeed elsewhere, and constantly build each other up with the company goal in mind is a critical trait in a team.
Maximize EVERY Opportunity like MacGyver:
Remember MacGyver? Not only did he have one of the world’s best mullets but he could hotwire a bomb given a paperclip, ballpoint pen, and a rubber band and escape danger. The show always opened with MacGyver in some type of danger or facing some sort of obstacle and what made it such a great show to watch was to understand how, with minimal resources, MacGyver would succeed leaving the audience to ask themselves “how did he think of that.”
Good and bad things happen every day (link to empathy post) in the startup world. It’s not your monotonous day in the big corporation world. Deals are lost, a product doesn’t work, a release comes out late, and a customer gets mad. Then there are good things that happen to your company. We win a deal, sign a partner, get a good lead, or get to talk shop with a nice guy from Bostinnovation at Harpoon Brewery. No matter what happens every day, good or bad, ask yourself “what is the absolute most value this opportunity can provide my company?” Given a paper clip, how can you get the most out of it like MacGyver? Given a new lead, what can you do with that lead to get the most out value to your business? Win a deal? Great! But don’t be satisfied with the win but find a way to duplicate that win again or take that win to the next level. Get your new customer on a reference call next week so you have a better chance to do it again. Invite that customer to an online community of customers and share his or her experience. Ask your client to promote his new product to five friends in exchange for a gift.
The reason I look for this quality is because resources will always be limited in a startup. MacGyver never had many resources to work with, always faced challenges, but always succeeded. In the startup world, we are faced with the same situation. I put every interview through what I call the lead test (typically hiring sales people) where I present them with a quality inbound lead and ask them what they would do with it. The one who maximizes the most value out of the lead will typically get the job.
Think Big and Step Outside Your Comfort Zone:
If you get the chance to interview with the visionary of a startup, take full advantage to learn everything you can from him or her. Let’s hope you share that vision as it’s critical to a startup. Getting there is what will be up for discussion every day and you’ll have the opportunity to help pave that path. Visionaries think big. I always challenge myself and others to think bigger not necessarily to trump a founder’s vision but to unlock the brain to come up with creative ways of taking steps to get there. Richard Branson is the king of thinking big (highly recommend this read) and what I like about his approach to business is that he is the one that seems to think bigger and bigger unlocking ideas to build a more profitable business.
In Q2 of last year, my startup missed our number and missed big. We had put the right team in place and had two consecutive successful quarters. But coming up very shy of our number in Q2, we weren’t sure what really went wrong. Obviously our team huddled up and decided our direction was work harder, drive more activity, and build the pipeline which we knew we could do.
One team member took a step back and asked a big question; Why? Why did we miss so badly and have we strayed from our vision? Our vision was to be the most valuable solution in a very niche market. After taking some time to look into it, it was brought to our attention that our customers were not buying upgrades and maintenance renewals were not as consistent as we expected. Our customers were not getting the value of our product that we anticipated and there was no way to be the most valuable solution in the market if we were not the most valuable to our existing customers.
Our rep not only recognized a problem but proposed a solution with an idea to bring our customers in house, train with our engineers for a few days, meet our executives, provide feedback to product development, and take the time to entertain our clients. That quarter, most all the customers renewed expired maintenance and 40% of them purchased additional licenses. The program was taken across the country to our entire customer base and in executed quarter of Q4, 39% of our record revenue quarter came out of this program.
Whether it was THE exact problem of why we missed so badly in Q2 ended up not mattering. It wasn’t that our team wasn’t working hard to close business where they could. But it was a rep who revisited the company’s vision, asked questions, thought outside the box, and did something he had never done before in proposing a change in how our company went to market.
Ever work for a large company where you have an idea which ends up falling on deaf ears because let’s face it, all best practices are in place after twenty plus years of being in business? Well in the startup space, the right idea can be gold. The ability to step outside your comfort zone and share ideas is invaluable to small businesses.