We are enamored by the notion of a startup and exuberant to be even remotely connected to one. To the point that I am starting to believe companies can reinvigorate themselves by renaming, relocating, and calling themselves a ‘startup’. Some have taken the concept to an extreme where they rename and rebrand on a yearly basis based on whatever is trending (e.g., cloud, AI, etc.). Here, I will focus on native startups, drawing on my own involvement with data and AI companies, supply chain solutions and robotics, and dissect the core components of their challenges and successes. You might expect a discussion on idea, product, hardworking team, and execution. Yes, these are very important in creating a foundation, but to build on that and have greater success, there is more to consider.
Failure is a rite of passage
Nine out of ten startups fail, lest we forget. Don’t get me wrong, this is not to discourage young minds from chasing their dreams, striving to revolutionize, bring to market the next big thing and make the world a better place. That should be their initial lure. My intention is not to dissuade entrepreneurship, but to bring a realization to the traps they can encounter on their journey that could hinder their success. I think a startup experience should be a requirement in every career. Startup failure is a rite of passage and I hope wisdom from this article helps minimize letdowns and increase success rates.
The real ingredients of success
We often hear a list of ingredients needed for success: a great idea to revolutionize and bring efficiencies – a passion to drive it to success – a robust execution team – and of course, investors and coffers with a very extended runway. Not quite right. These are not enough to get you to the finish line. We have seen situations where the best product does not always win. It is incredibly competitive, you must be prepared and equipped with more than a good product to succeed.
The most essential components typically overlooked or not even recognized that are needed to realize the dream of a startup: Maturity, Modesty, Courage and Vision – no exception or compromise. Simply, it could be that nine out of ten startups do not achieve the maturity level needed. Conducting themselves with a level of modesty, having the courage to drive and achieve their potential or possess the vision to foresee the future to build beyond the initial bright idea.
I identified these four traits from my personal experiences in advising, observing, and reading about many of the failures and successes in various medias. The startup field of dreams is rich in use cases for us to observe and learn.
Maturity – Maturity to do the right thing, understand your limitations and ask for help when you need it. This is best demonstrated by the Google founders when they hired Eric Schmidt. He was the adult supervision Larry Page and Sergey Brin needed, by choice or pressure from the board early on, they realized most of their success after he joined. It is not easy to let go the rein of something you feel is part of you and that you worked so hard for. It takes a lot of maturity to perform such a move. In that case it proved to be the right one. Be conscious and aware of situations and surroundings by observing and learning then acting with a clear understanding and purpose. Do this and you will expedite your natural transition to maturity.
Modesty – Startup founders can certainly exude arrogance or the “Steve Jobs syndrome”. These founders usually possess a healthy dose of narcissism with the infatuation of their new idea. With a slight glimmer of success; they start to act, talk, and behave like Steve Jobs after he became Steve Jobs. Whereas they would be well served to model Steve Jobs before he became Steve Jobs. Something I have observed several times and it is painful to see… a product with a market need and a very bright future brought down by the over confidence of the founders being overrun by newcomers with a fraction of the investment, effort and time. Never lay your guard down or get overconfident. These actors can be easily spotted. Stay humble and focused. Recognize how (and the help) you received to accomplish your milestones, this could be internal as your team and/or external as your competition.
Courage – It requires a certain level of courage to want to start a business and risk it all. The mere fact of initiating the process speaks volume. Some plan it and it is part of their DNA and some fall into it. Once they accomplish a certain level of success and comfort, hesitation starts to eclipse their dreams of maximizing and realizing their potential. They tend to get comfortable and become risk averse, which goes against the core of a startup. Always be ready for the battle, studying exploring, and innovating. Remember this quote from Guy Kawasaki, “If you don’t kill your cash cows, someone else will”.
Vision – A word that is overused and abused. Usually startups stumble on a new technology, developed in-house or incorporating and integrating several new technologies to form a product. Often founders search for an industry that can benefit from their invention or solution. Solving the problem is not enough and thinking that they are the only ones with the vision to evolve it is a trap. They lack the maturity and courage to hire industry experts to help them visualize and realize the potential. Have a mental blueprint of the path to the future and recognize that it will be ever evolving and help inching you closer to your goals.
In conclusion – no room for compromise
These are the four traits that in my opinion are crucial to any success story for an ambitious startup. There can be no compromise on any of them, you cannot address one and be weak on the others. I have seen a startup demonstrate maturity by hiring a CEO to get them to the next level. They hired a CEO to ramp up funding, unfortunately he and the founders lacked modesty, courage and vision, and as a result underwent tremendous turmoil.
Maturity, modesty, and courage come together as one continuum. When this is reached, it helps lead the founders to act and do the right thing and seek the help needed to build a robust vision. These steps have a strong correlation to “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. If you have not already, this is a great book to read, you will experience a paradigm shift in your thinking on how you see the world in general. A good correlation to the habits is transitioning from dependence to independence and then shedding the ‘startup’ label by moving to interdependence. You will be amazed how the 7 Habits apply to many facets of our lives. Start by being proactive, scavenging and scouring trying to learn and establishing yourself. Then grow to get to the interdependence stage working with customers, partners and everyone in the ecosystem as you mature and evolve.
Each startup, in its progression to maturity, will be tested on every single trait. How founders answer each challenge is what will differentiate the successes from the failures. Keep these four traits on the top of your mind in all your dealings, internal and external to your teams and make yours the success that you dreamed it to be and that you deserve.