While the majority of my career has been spent at two large companies (E&Y and Express Scripts), I have had the opportunity to try several start-ups. Firepond is a CRM company that I joined just before we took the company public in 2000. CentralScript is a company I launched after working on the concept for Express Scripts. Talisen is a company I joined while it is trying to figure out how to scale.
The biggest thing I have learned is that the team is much more important than the individual. I have worked in lots of circumstances where a “hero” could save the day. I have seen that be wrong now enough times to know better.
Here are some of the other things I have learned:
- VOC (Voice of the Customer) is critical. Just because it is a good idea doesn’t mean anyone will pay for it.
- KISS (Keep it simple stupid) has a lot of validity. Just because customers or investors want you to be something is not a reason to be something. Stick with a niche. Dominate the niche. Then expand.
- Make mistakes early. Trial and error is a valid way to learn, but it becomes harder to shift direction as time goes on.
- Hitting lots of singles makes a lot of sense rather than waiting for the homerun. Know your place in the foodchain and optimize it.
- Everything takes a lot longer than you think. Just because it is your life doesn’t mean it is important for anyone else.
- Passion is essential just don’t let it blind you to reality. On the other hand, being an evangelist or early adopter is great…but very difficult.
- Surround yourself with very smart people that are action oriented. You can have great thinkers in a big company, but not in a little company.
- Working in a start-up environment is very emotional (assuming you are committed to it). You feel the ups and downs. And, those around you may get whiplash from trying to keep up.
- Don’t expand too fast. It dilutes your quality.
- Do it right from the beginning. Think about process and culture and know what you want to look like when you grow.
- Communication is always key at any size. Make sure everyone knows what you are doing and don’t forget to provide positive feedback and constructive and direct feedback.
- A good, motivational leader is important.
- Have a few (but very close) partners. Signing empty agreements that no one commits to wastes everyone’s time and is useless.
- Never forget that features tell while value sells. Too many people get caught up in the offering not what the client gets out of it. If you can’t articulate the value, no one will buy it.
- It is a small world. Network like crazy and help others whenever you can.
A few other general things that I have noted over the years include:
- Work is like training for a marathon. You can’t sprint all the time. Know when to throw yourself at work and when to pace yourself. You can’t innovate if you don’t see the forest through the trees.
- Being happy is critical. This means different things to different people. To me, I have to be learning and being challenged. I had repetition.
- Take time to know people. People quit or stay because of their bosses. (at least historically)
- Life is too short. If you feel strongly about something, be a change agent to make it happen. Don’t just complain…bring a solution to the table.
- You never know everything. And, you can learn from everyone…both above and below you.
- Myers-Briggs and other frameworks are helpful. Understanding the framework and motivations that people bring to the table is important.
- Use facts. Focus on metrics. Never assume without some rationale.
- 80/20 rule actually makes sense. Don’t wait for perfect.
- The grass is not greener. It is just different.
- Surround yourself by people that are smarter than you and work to eliminate the need for you and your role. If you are doing the right thing, the company will take care of you. (generally)