The startup landscape is changing, and entrepreneurs must adapt along with it. Of course, the world of entrepreneurship experiences cycles. Within that context, change is neither good nor bad -- it's simply a reflection of market dynamics and lessons learned.
There are signs that the next iteration might well be a retro movement, calling back to the days of startups formed in garages by business partners who sold everything to make their vision a reality. It’s the Steve Jobs story. Over the past few decades, though, that tale has been replaced by glittering offices, sky-high valuations and mega-angel investors.
For the first time in years, investors are seeing negative numbers on their portfolios. Not surprisingly, it's caused a retreat of investor dollars. In a recent interview, Irving Investors portfolio manager Jeremy Abelson said, “We’ve completely stopped investing in private tech. I’m done with intangible valuations, unknown exits, unknown liquidity, and I want something that if I put my money into it now, I’m not going to hit a grand slam, but I’m going to get something that’s immediately yielding.”
That sentiment has sent ripples -- if not shockwaves -- through the entrepreneur community in Silicon Valley and beyond. What does it mean to be an entrepreneur whose first priority is not to pitch investors? How do you grow a business with little to no seed funding? Are the same entrepreneurs who are succeeding today the ones who will succeed tomorrow?
These are tough questions. To help answer them, Cole Zucker and Guillaume Vidal believe others try the old-school road they took to find their success. They founded Green Creative without large investor dollars, went door-to-door selling their products and slept in their cars. Today, they hold contracts with Fortune 500 companies from Walmart to Macy’s. Here are the four characteristics they say modern entrepreneurs must embody.
1. Create functional partnerships.
Many entrepreneurs seek business partners because starting a company is a daunting task. Ask anyone who's ever braved it alone, and they'll tell you it can be very lonely during some of the most difficult hours. But a partner doesn't always add value to your business.
“You’re not looking for someone who has an inspiring vision or who is a really good friend of yours,” Zucker explains. “You’re looking for someone with a complementary set of skills who you can work well with in the trenches. It helps if you get along personally, but your business partner does not need to be your best friend.”
Approximately 80 percent of business partnerships ultimately fail -- substantial higher than the American divorce rate. Be sure you select your partner based on merit.
2. Put business first.
Money corrupts people’s ability to think clearly. Psychologists have studied lottery winners' mental states, and the results are predictably depressing. Money in a business partnership can have an equally corrosive influence, in good times and bad. Functional partnerships put the business first.
“If the goal of the business is to get a billion-dollar valuation, you are setting yourself up for failure,” Vidal says. “You and your partner have to focus on building a functional business and to be fulfilled by that adventure. If the big payoff comes, that should be icing on the cake -- the satisfaction should come from the venture itself.”
If 90 percent of startups fail, an even higher percentage of startups run like lottery hopefuls will end with a loss. Focus on building an honest business.
3. Love being an entrepreneur.
Standouts such as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk became celebrities as a result of their successes. But if fame is your goal, you'll treat your business in a way that isn't conducive to success in a traditional startup environment.
“You can’t be in business for recognition,” Zucker says. “If you want praise for your work, you will choose an industry and a product in the hopes it will be flashy enough to be noticed, not because you think it can work. I really caution young entrepreneurs to analyze their motives in this regard.”
It's hard enough to create a business that turns a profit. If you're also aiming to transform into a Silicon Valley celebrity, you're taking on too many goals at once.
4. Be laser-focused on improvement.
Today's startup culture pushes founders to develop businesses they can sell for a big payout. In the process, they attach artificial timelines to outcomes. You can't always build a good company quickly, and cutting corners is the worst thing you can do in the beginning. Instead, entrepreneurs must view each company as a long-term investment of both time and energy.
“Our company is doing very well today, but we aren’t done with it,” Vidal says. “Sure, there were exits we could have taken along the way, but as entrepreneurs our focus has always been the business and how good we can make it. We are really passionate about being entrepreneurs, but that does not mean we need to start 10 more businesses now.”
The patience required to see a project through to its zenith is lacking in today’s entrepreneurs. But with Silicon Valley's rapidly changing dynamics, tomorrow’s most successful entrepreneurs may very well be those who pour themselves into their businesses over longer horizons.