Lessons In Tech Entrepreneurship From a Silicon Valley Contrarian
For successful entrepreneurs, it was never just about the technology but the vision, a vision that would transform the way humans live
First and foremost there is no standardized playbook to becoming a successful entrepreneur. Your entrepreneurial journey will be defined by your experiences, your commitment to your ideas, and your ability to adapt under adversity. My journey as an entrepreneur started as a child, with my first experience writing BASIC code on an Apple II computer; it opened my eyes to the way the world would be transformed by computers.
I was lucky, early in my career I had the privilege of working at global tech companies such as NCR and Apple, and with their partners such as Sony, IBM and Motorola. As much as I learned from those experiences, the most valuable lessons learned were about what-not-to-do. As luck would have it, a common theme in my journey has been working on technologies that reached millions, sometimes billions of people, transforming their lives and their work. My current efforts are a continuation of that journey; using AI technologies to help human teams operate at a superhuman scale. However, technology innovation by itself does not make you an entrepreneur. Successful entrepreneurs almost always start with a transformative vision, one that doesn’t follow the standard path or of conventional wisdom; think about Steve Jobs, who did it multiple times, with the personal computer, the personal music player the smartphone and the tablet, with each product, a solution that was far more impactful than that just the technology. A more recent example is Elon Musk, who’s revolutionary vision of an all-electric car surpassed all those that clung to an evolutionary vision of a hybrid. For them, it was never just about the technology but the vision, a vision that would transform the way humans live. So, today I want to share some lessons I learned while on my entrepreneurial journey, that go beyond mastering technology or the product.
Start with solving a problem, entrepreneurship will follow
Entrepreneurship has become a buzzword. While that may be your end result, it cannot be your goal. One has to start with a vision around a problem or an inefficiency that affects a lot of people or companies. In the constantly evolving world of technology, whether you invent something new or adapt or modify existing technology, your offering has to solve a pain-point or transform what we take for granted. This is easier said than done. The idea needs to be tangible and executable. Hence, resilience is key. Start with a clean slate, documenting how it’s done today, break down the problem, understand the intricacies, document your vision for improvements. Give your first pass some time to ‘soak’, enough time so your mind and body have an opportunity to look at it with a fresh perspective. Re-visit, iterate, until you feel it’s ready to test. As tech geeks, we understand the importance of iteration, test, iterate, test…before deployment. The same discipline needs to be replicated in building a tech startup. There is never a perfect path to building the perfect company. Be thoughtful and be prepared to re-visit and change a decision if it doesn’t work. This applies to almost everything, your employees, what you pay them, your financing, your location, your product roadmap. There can’t be any ‘sacred cows’ to your journey. Every decision has to stand the test of time, and good entrepreneurs develop a keen sense around re-visiting an important decision and changing course. There’s also no substitute for practice. Practice brings us closer to perfection. It builds confidence and prepares you for the worst situations and gives you the ability to perform at peak level under all sorts of circumstances.
Scale, replicate, drive transformation
Your startup’s success depends on how you construct your journey from idea to product or service. Two important considerations before deciding to scale up are finding product-market fit (as discussed above) and clearly understanding who you sell to (your customer). To drive transformation you must achieve scale. Rarely does this happen by yourself, it often happens by building a partnership with those that already have a relationship with your target customer or sell products or services to said, the customer. As much as you test your product before launch, you have to test your sales process and the use of your product/service. Enlist your friends or hire people to do this in a rigorous, documented process. You’ll be surprised at how much that process needs to be refined. It’s also an important opportunity to identify ‘leaks’ in your process and how to iterate that process to create a more water-tight and end-to-end solution. In the case of AI/ML systems, you need large datasets to prove your algorithms can adapt and deliver what you designed your systems to do. When we started our company, we started with one medium-sized media company in a single market. We made adjustments to the product, the onboarding process, even pricing before we expanded. That discipline allowed us to effectively scale the business, get to critical mass, and actually transform how an entire industry interacts with consumers and how they personalize content. The core tenant here is iteration, which strengthens product-market-fit, which will help you scale and ultimately enable you to transform an industry by replicating that solution across similar customers, markets and even countries.
Don’t follow the norm, create whitespace between you and other players
As tech entrepreneurs, you are well aware of the transformative giants that have created this new digital world enabled by the Internet. Those companies didn’t disrupt the world by following the beaten path. So, when it comes to promoting and marketing your business, don’t just follow the playbook. Become an expert (or hire one) on ‘growth hacking’, try a bunch of things; contribute to industry forums, blogs, podcasts, post on LinkedIn, social media and invest behind results. Dig deeper and really understand your target audience and create your own process to reach them. Be provocative and aspirational with your marketing messages. Talk about your notable milestones. Your customers will take note, even if only to give you fair consideration in a hyper-competitive marketplace.
Build your ‘ship’ crew
Like every ship requires a capable crew, entrepreneurship calls for a well-coordinated team. People are the most valuable asset of a startup business. Employees value the opportunity to put their skills to use and be recognized for their contributions. Empower them to contribute outside the narrow scope of their job description, recognize and celebrate when they do. As their leader, you need to steer them in the right direction but don’t micromanage them. Experimenting, failing, correcting, over-and-over is an important part of both the employee and company journey. This process helps them understand the company’s vision and pour their heart and soul into achieving it. Hire smart, passionate people with some domain expertise and build a company culture that celebrates milestones, not just successes.
Own your mistakes
Build a culture of experimentation where mistakes are recognized as part of the journey. In the world of technology where you are constantly innovating, you have to embrace that everyone in the organization will make mistakes. Encourage yourself and your team to own these mistakes without fear of judgment as long as you are iterating towards a solution. Set an example by talking about your mistakes and how you iterated to a solution. Getting closer to perfection is a journey full of hits and misses. These misses help you learn and get better, making the company more resilient.
Set stretch goals, with achievable milestones, repeat
Success is hard-earned and you should take a moment to celebrate milestones. Take a breath, but recognize that it’s important to maintain, even increase momentum. If you suffer a major setback, re-calibrate and set new goals. Be passionate, it’s contagious. The pandemic has taught us the importance of adapting and staying on mission. As an entrepreneur, you have to be prepared to quickly shift from panic mode to adaptation mode and find opportunities, to help your team, your partners, your customers to succeed.
In the last few months, the pandemic has brought many obstacles into the entrepreneurial ecosystem urging leaders to push boundaries and come out of their comfort zones. Resilience, a positive mindset, and a collaborative effort, where we learn from each other will help us push through and keep moving forward. When you focus on the good, the good gets better.