I’m chronicling what the first year of building a startup really looks like, from the inside. A week ago, I quit an executive job at a 500-person company, one that, as many of you reading know already, got acquired for about $400 million. On Day 1, I wrote Day #1 in a Startup – Always Be Hiring, where I talked about starting your day early, communicating with the core team, setting goals for the first 90 days, and why you should always be hiring. Here’s what Week 1 at our startup taught me.
First, the context. Like most early-stage startups, we’re not starting with very much tangible stuff. Yes, we have an office space that will fit 5 people if we installed corporate-style cubicles, which we’re not, so it can fit 10 with IKEA desks (and headphones to cut out the noise). The rest is intangible – expertise, mockups, software prototypes, customer contacts, investor contacts, advisors. Wait a minute – there’s a lot there already! Let’s take a look at what the team (any good team) brings to the table:
- Decades of years of expertise in building and selling software to the Schwabs, Expedias, Facebooks of the world.
- Mockups that have taken weekends and evenings of work to understand the user problems, the buyer’s intrinsic motivators, and the workflow.
- Software prototypes that demonstrate that this team knows how to build the product.
- Relationships with potential customers we know well, whose business problems we understand, and who would evaluate our product.
- Conversations with potential advisors and experienced software guys at the Diwali party – Indian New Year – last night.
That’s a lot of intangibles, and it all adds up. So we’re starting with a lot, and so are you, if you’re starting your own company. Use this intellectual capital well – it’s the raw material, the diamonds in the rough waiting to be picked (excuse the mixed metaphor). This week, here’s what I learnt:
Keep the Focus on Building the Product. If you’re not building the product, and talking to customers, then you’re just an idea with a powerpoint. So build it. But build what, exactly? It can be a demoing prototype, a working prototype, or high-fidelity mockups. Something that allows you to get to the next level quickly, which is to have deeper conversations with potential customers. Thanks to our very talented head of UX, we have now advanced beyond the Balsamiq mockups that I highly recommend all startup CEOs use. We now have high-fidelity mockups with a clear workflow that demonstrates how the product will work, and work has begun on writing the software code and setting up the IT infrastructure. I can put the high-fidelity mockup in a deck that I send to a customer. Speaking of customers, I spoke to a potential one our first week – a fast-growing and highly reputable SaaS company – and they agreed to try the product as soon as we had it ready!
Share Your Idea With the Right People. One of the delights of working in San Francisco is that you can feed off the energy of the City’s numerous cafes. The other day, I stopped by La Boulange de Hayes, a delightful cafe in Hayes Valley (it’s now part of Starbucks, but you’d never know it, it feels way different). Without Wi-Fi, it doesn’t have the mausoleum-like feeling of a Starbucks, because people are there to savor their food and drink, and talk to people they’re with – it has the vibrant feeling of a Paris cafe. There I bumped into a previous colleague and her boyfriend, and he (the boyfriend) asked if I would talk about our startup idea. Sure, I said, why not, and I talked about how we’re solving the onboarding problem for businesses, and provided a short description of how it would work. As it turns out, my friend works for healthcare IT, and I know that hospitals often launch new, complex applications without the tools to help onboard their users effectively. The boyfriend, who was a very creative sort, immediately threw out an idea that buyers would like, and as it turned out, we have that on our roadmap. So, I’ve been talking freely about the idea to people who I think would be able to help me advance it to the next level – introduce us to a customer, advise us on some aspect of running the business, or want to join the company (we’re hiring, folks!).
Understand Your Advisors’ Mindset When Taking Their Feedback. This week I spoke to two potential advisors. The first came from the ed-tech space, and he seemed to like the idea, and gave me some insights into what makes educational content work well. That was valuable, but I also recognize that I liked his thoughts because he agreed with me, so I tempered my enthusiasm – now I’ll wait until he and I talk the second time, and get deeper. The same first week, I talked to another potential advisor who really didn’t like the idea. So naturally I felt disappointed by his reaction, but I didn’t let that get in the way of learning what he was telling me. It turns out that he thought that the idea was solid, but he doubted any engineer’s ability to solve it. So now we have something concrete we can prove – by building the product. It also uncovered that he felt my answer about technical choices wasn’t robust enough, and we are sure to get this from sophisticated investors, so I made a mental note to understand my VP Engineering’s mind deeper, so I could be credible. So, you have to understand your advisor’s experience – the first person came from the domain so he liked it and can help us develop the content better. The second advisor was a pioneer who has a strong compass about his own vision, preferring that to customer feedback in the early days of a startup. We’re motivated by solving customer problems first, and we also believe in going after big markets. See also my friend, Head of Microsoft Ventures in APAC, Mukund Mohan’s post on listening to feedback from advisors.
Week 1 was about building the product and talking to customers, with new advisors added to take the idea to the next level of execution. Week 2 will be about following up with customers, and continuing to build the product.
Day in a Startup series
The chronicle of our Silicon Valley startup:
Day #1 in a Startup – Always Be Hiring
Day #7 in a Startup – Share Your Idea To Acquire Customers Faster
Day #14 in a Startup – Making Friends
Day #21 in a Startup – Separation of Church (Web Site) and State (Email)