Lessons From a Scrappy Business: 3 Roles You Can Sacrifice in the Early Stages
On June 3, 2017, Alex Honnold rocked (pun intended) the climbing world with the first-ever “free solo” ascent of the monolithic El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. He climbed nearly 3,000 feet of slick granite, without safety gear, ropes, or a partner -- and without a Plan B.
While Honnold spent years preparing for and scaling the western face with safety gear, his June ascent -- spoiler alert: Yes, he survived -- was something that had never been done before. At the right moment, he knew he just had to grab on and go.
Honnold’s feat was instructive for entrepreneurs. Too often, startup founders fail to launch because they experience a kind of preparation paralysis. They refuse to begin without having every contingency covered.
The truth is, though, that you often need to just start climbing. "Time to market" is one of the biggest factors in startups' success or failure. If you too delay too long, the rapid innovations of the market will outpace you.
Getting the feel of the rock beneath you
When I launched YieldStreet, the online lending industry was in its infancy, with a few leading companies and many unknowns. We didn’t know whether we’d develop the best product in a year’s time, but we saw an opening.
We began coding on January 5, 2015, and launched that April -- just three months in -- because we knew we had to get our product out there. The first iteration wasn’t perfect, and it may not have been pretty, but we figured out ways to adapt and refine our process along the way.
As Honnold made his way up El Capitan and its occasional expanses of glassy rock, he too had to adapt to the circumstances. He couldn’t know with certainty the condition of the rock until he was there and on it, without ropes or a safety net. In the same way, you can’t know how the market will respond to your product until it’s actually out there.
The people who launched Facebook, for example, never knew it would become a primary source of news when it launched. Mark Zuckerberg may not have even considered the platform’s immense ecommerce potential.
Instead, when Facebook began, it was geared toward helping college students make connections by “friending” each other and liking and commenting on posts. The greater potential of the site became evident only later, after the company had observed how customers were using it.
What you can leave behind and find later.
That kind of market feedback is critical to the evolution or scaling of any business. However, you may have to make some sacrifices during your own prelaunch hustle to initiate that kind of constructive dialogue with your consumers.
Just as Honnold began his climb without the gear another climber might consider vital, there are some standard business-team members some founders would never willingly forgo.
In fact, however, those founders could stand to leave the following players for later:
1. Tech talent
You’re thinking right now that I’m nuts. You're thinking, Starting up without tech talent goes against everything we’ve been taught to believe during the tech boom of the past 20 years.
And, don’t get me wrong. To launch a business in today’s world, you will need some aspects of tech, in the form of a website, an app or a platform. But that doesn’t mean you need a chief technology officer or engineers on your very first day.
Tech amateurs have launched many successful businesses. Larry Ellison founded Oracle, one of the earliest household tech startup names, with a sales background.
Groupon’s founder, Andrew Mason, came out of Northwestern University with a music degree.
We didn’t have a tech-oriented founder, either at our companies, Yodle and YieldStreet. In each case, we decided to forgo hiring a CTO on day one. Knowing we had a strong product and high demand, we kept our tech spending at subsistence levels and poured our budget into front-end sales, contrary to conventional wisdom.
The plan worked: Our model kept technology at a level where it allowed us to get the product to market quickly. We didn’t scale up our technology until we were scaling up the entire business. That’s when we needed a CTO, not in the early days.
2. HR recruiters
You can’t build a tower on a weak foundation. In the beginning, the best judge of who will be a great fit at your company is you. No one else has the same passion and vision as the founder(s), and no one will know better what kind of team is needed to execute that vision.
You should really be at the forefront of hiring the first 25 team members. Even though a founder has no time to recruit, he or she can’t afford to sacrifice quality in the inaugural round of employees; the first 25 will deeply affect what happens with the next 75.
Taking the next step beyond the first two dozen or so hires may be daunting. Greg Brockman, the founding engineer at Stripe who now runs OpenAI, leveraged those first hires for referrals at Stripe. He had all of his engineers make a list of the best and smartest people they had ever worked with and then charged them with going after the people on their lists.
The numbers bear out Brockman’s strategy: Research by recruiting platform Jobvite shows that 51 percent of employers surveyed said they found it less expensive to recruit referrals, and applicants hired through referrals began their positions 10 to 26 days faster. I myself maintain a list of people I want to bring on from my past life, and from Yodle, once they’re an appropriate fit for YieldStreet.
3. A marketing department
According to research by HubSpot, one of the top three marketing challenges for businesses is a lack of marketing budget. Fortunately, there’s a great way around this obstacle: Every member of your team can be a marketer.
When I was building my first company, we used our sales team and guerrilla marketing tactics to compile lists of prospects. We asked family and friends to spread the word about our product. Our founders went to conferences and took on speaking engagements. Our sales team made direct calls to prospects and customers, acting as hunters and closers at the same time. Our prospect list grew from hundreds to thousands of names.
Until you’ve built up a sizable pipeline of business, sales team members can integrate marketing functions into their roles. Your customers can become deputized members of the marketing team by making word-of-mouth referrals. And networking at industry or consumer events is still a great way to contact influencers and potential new clients.
Think of the image of Honnold’s lean figure maneuvering deliberately and dangerously up El Capitan’s slick surface as a visual analogy for startup life.
In the beginning, your business may need to operate with a skeleton. Founders may be taking office supply orders, storing product in their garages or learning to write simple code. To reach the peak, you will need to make some sacrifices, take some calculated risks and then just start climbing, one hand over the other.