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The Road to Entrepreneurship Is a 10-Year Journey: CEO Success Stories From Silicon Valley

The Road to Entrepreneurship Is a 10-Year Journey: CEO Success Stories From Silicon Valley
Image credit: Stephen Lam | REUTERS
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Last week, I was lucky enough to attend a panel session on Technology, Entrepreneurship and Leadership at the Brightedge Share15 conference in San Francisco.

Roger Lee, general partner at Silicon Valley VC firm Battery Ventures, moderated this final panel of the two-day conference. Panelists included the co-founders and CEOs John Ham, of Ustream; Jim Yu, of BrightEdge; and Tien Tzuo, of Zuora.

Related: 8 Great Entrepreneurial Success Stories

Attendees had already been treated to a smorgasbord of digital marketing strategies and tips from more than 70 leading brand speakers, and this session topped off the conference with an inspiring look into the minds and the experience of three successful entrepreneurs. Their over-arching message was unanimous: The entrepreneurial journey is long, with multiple paths, but success really depends on which of those paths you choose at each of three main crossroads:

1. Crossing the ideation chasm

Ustream is a video platform. BrightEdge is a content-performance marketing platform. And Zuora is an enterprise software company. Despite these very different businesses the panelists had founded, they all concurred that there was no single "aha" moment. But there were important moments. 

For John Ham, one of those moments came while he was serving in the military overseas and wondering why it was so difficult to communicate meaningfully with family back home; that seed only grew bigger when he later found out that his CTO-to-be was working on a similar idea for a Hungarian dating site. For Ham, it wasn’t just the idea but the potential for it to become big that spurred him into action.

The CEOs agreed that you need to assess whether your idea has the "legs" to create an entire company around. Roger Lee impressed on the audience, from his point-of-view as a VC, that often entrepreneurs come looking for backing for what turn out to be features or products insufficent to scale into a company.

In order to cross the chasm from ideation to company creation, then, entrepreneurs must balance their passion for their idea with the practical reality of "how the business will look in 10 years' time."

2. Choosing the right partner for the long haul

Another resounding takeaway from the panel concerned building the right team, the right culture and the right company trajectory.

Having a like mind with complementary skills to bounce ideas off has been instrumental, the CEOs agreed. For Tien Tzuo, having someone there at the start to help shape the direction of the company was better, in his experience, than hiring someone later on to help build the business. The commitment demonstrated in those early days, coupled with honest conversations, served his company's cause well, Tzuo said.

Jim Yu, meanwhile, commented on how the revelation that his co-founder, Lemuel Park, had spent an unpaid year in Africa doing charity work sealed that deal for him. Creating and growing a company is a journey, the CEOs said. So it’s important to pick the right person to go on that journey with someone who "has your back."

Related: 6 Stories of Super Successes Who Overcame Failure 

3. Funding your journey wisely

Brightedge was bootstrapped for its first ten months as it went looking for funding, Ham said. Things were difficult eight years ago because Brightedge's business is about optimizing organic search results for businesses, and potential backers were confused about the large sum of money being spent and the need for paid listings. Pitching only became easier after the founders cycled through a number of meetings.

Ustream’s early funding came from $40,000 put on to credit cards until the company's angel funding came through. After that, the idea spoke for itself, and much of the investment interest came knocking on the company's door, rather than vice versa.

Arguably the biggest takeaway from this eye-opening and inspiring session was the notion that the key to successful companies is people and leadership. While there is no set road to success, all panelists agreed, how you navigate those three main crossroad choices impacts the likelihood of success.

For some, the journey can be smooth sailing; for others, it's a bumpy ride.

Tzuo suggested that aspiring entrepreneurs “choose something that has a 'runway,' to let you make mistakes, then work out how you as a leader bring the organization together to focus on a single goal and change the world.”

In all, the panel was a real treat for event-goers for the sneak peek it provided into the minds of three successful entrepreneurs. And in the end the panelists all said that they had taken their first step because they feared regretting it if they didn't -- not because they feared failure.

Related: These Wildly Successful Entrepreneurs Once Were Homeless