What I Wish I Knew 5 Years Ago About Startups
Unbird began the Techstars startup accelerator program (Boulder, '19) this week. I arrived with some skepticism and had questions about the value that would be generated from the program, but I have already seen immense value from our first week here. That is why I wanted to document the lessons I've learned.
- An idea is not a business.
- Forget luck—great companies are built.
- Techstars is the education I was searching for.
- Bonus: Noteable Takeways
An idea is not a business
Previously, I conceptually held businesses tightly to perfect ideas—a one-to-one relationship. I worked diligently to think of, search for, and analyze ideas that were spectacular enough to create businesses out of, because—to me—a business didn’t exist without a bulletproof idea.
“The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas.”
And my previous actions are proof of the misconception I held. When the idea behind Padstash (a company I founded in 2016) didn’t pan out, I shut the company down and started a multi-year journey of idea searching. And boy, I was wrong to take that route.
This Thursday, I spent several hours with Jim Collins, one of the world’s most well-known business authors. Jim didn’t personally convince me that my point of view was incorrect; however, his extensive research from the past 30 years did.
In Jim’s book, Built to Last, he and a team of researchers set out to discover what sets exceptional companies apart. To summarize one lesson taught in the book, the companies that became great were more likely to have their initial business idea fail than succeed. In fact, some of the great companies didn’t even initially form their companies with an idea in mind at all. Instead, their focus was to build an enduring company. They knew that with the right people they would be able to find ideas that would make their businesses last, and they did.
This shifted the way that I think about businesses. I now know that regardless of whether I have the perfect idea, I can move forward and create a business. This may be counterintuitive to some, but it was a serendipitous moment for me to realize that I no longer need to be held captive by the idea of the perfect idea. A long-lasting business is what I’ve always longed to build, and ideas will come as I continue building.
Forget luck—great companies are built
Entrepreneurship is full of clichés, mostly thrown around by non-entrepreneurs. One such thought is that a company is built primarily on the premise of luck. Yes, the founders of the companies worked hard to succeed, but at the end of the day, it was the sheer good fortune of some to succeed and others to fail.
BS. Sure, there are select cases where luck is the primary cause of success, but it is hardly conclusive for startups as a whole.
In another one of Jim’s books, Good to Great, research revealed a powerful concept: both great companies and average companies received the same amount of luck. However, it was what they did with that luck that differentiated them from one another. The great companies took advantage of the good fortune that came their way whereas the comparison companies failed to do so.
Which brings me to my point: a system of taking advantage of luck can be built into a company. It can be constructed into the culture. But luck does not make a company. Far too many decisions exist in the creation of a company for luck to take it from inception to success.
This, along with other lessons I learned this week from the CEO of Sphero, paint a story that arduous and consistent work eventually birth great companies.
Techstars is the education I was searching for
Four years ago, I struggled to know which degree I should pursue. I remember feeling lost on campus, simply because the path I wanted to take didn’t fit the class schedule I hopelessly maintained. I wondered if others felt the same way, but the majority of students I interacted with didn’t understand my innate desire to build a business.
Eventually, I pushed myself through the courses until I was accepted into a highly rated technical business program (BYU Information Systems). The sad part of the story is that I wasn’t fulfilled. I spent evenings racing through ideas, testing them with potential customers, and dreaming of the day that I could drop out of school because my business was taking too much of my time. Perhaps, if I had spent less time dreaming and more time executing, that dream would have become a reality sooner.
I attended a coding bootcamp one summer between semesters—DevMountain—where I learned how to code. Ironically, I again was curious as to why I was the only one learning to code so I could bootstrap my own businesses. Everything I did pointed toward my dream of building a company, yet the company was nowhere to be seen. I was stuck on finding a great idea.
Over time, I convinced myself that I needed patience. Surely, when I graduated I’d have a lightbulb moment and the idea of the century would pull my company into greatness. But that moment never came.
I wondered what was wrong with me. Other students were winning competitions with their ideas, so where were mine?
Fast forward a few years to the present—I’m working as a co-founder of a startup that was accepted into the Techstars Boulder acceleration program. After one week in the program, I’ve found myself wishing that someone had told me to start here. This is the education I was searching for. These are the connections I was longing to make. These are the skills I was hoping to work on.
To any young entrepreneur who isn’t satisfied with the college curriculum: begin reading yourself to sleep, start your company, and see if you can find a program to educate you the way that Techstars has started to educate me.
- Consistent progress wins the race 🐢
A simple concept that has been reiterated in my mind over the past few weeks, and again through this week of Techstars, has been that the winners who come out on top in entrepreneurship never stop working, even if the progress they are making seems insignificant.
News outlets like to flaunt company stories as if they were overnight successes, but in reality, successful outcomes generally take years of hard work and grit.
- Accountability ensures momentum 🎢
Built-in structure is one part of Techstars that I have thoroughly enjoyed. Immediately after arriving—I think on the second day—we jumped into choosing company KPI's and tracking metrics for our businesses. The accountability that this adds to the team is useful because it helps you quickly identify areas where you need to improve.
It's not that we weren't tracking company metrics before, but the renewed emphasis and training proved useful. In fact, one of the trainings highlighted a point that I felt we needed to better learn: Write down what you expect to happen before you ever test anything. This eliminates bias that would otherwise taint the tests that you are running.
- Life isn’t life without your wife 👰🏼
The next time I have an opportunity to do something like this away from home, I'll make it more of a priority to ensure my wife takes part in the journey with me. Being thousands of miles apart indeed has encouraged focus, but it's also time that we can't get back.
- Your business partner can make you or break you 🔨
I've been fortunate to have chosen my business partner wisely. Jeff has been fantastic to work with. When going through a program like this, you need to be around someone that pushes you to grow yet doesn't undermine you for your faults.
One of the greatest compliments we received during the week (in my opinion) came from a friend and fellow founder, Anuj. He commented, "You know, I've noticed that you and Jeff are really respectful to each other."
- Food poisoning is not fun 🤢
Last of all, be ready for anything. And when your wife tells you to put a trash can next to your bed for easy access, you should probably listen.