[Tips for Entrepreneurs] The Secret(s) to Your Start-Up

Things are bubbling in the technology start-up world: not 1998 frothy, but clearly bubbling nonetheless.

And even while there is sobering reality – for example Tom Abate’s piece yesterday in the San Francisco Chronicle Why Silicon Valley Faces Fresh Threatsthere are telltale signals that things may be changing.

Signs of a cautious optimism can be found from the uptick in the amount of venture capital investment – noted courtesy Chubby Brain here in the highest number of deals occurring in the US in Q4 2009 at US$5.5 B with an aggregate of US$20B for the year – to articles such as Dharmesh Shah’s in OnStartups.com earlier this week – Insights From Raising $33 Million In Venture Capital – found here. A piece I posted earlier based on Caanan Partners approach – How to Ask for Money – is here.

So if you are thinking about starting up, or you’re already there, what ARE the secrets:

  1. There are no secrets. There are only slightly more “rules.” After 30 years of working in business, be ethnical, treat customers, vendors, and employees fairly, and try to do the right thing are the three that I think are the most important. Hard work and constantly trying are two more that are key.
  2. Choose people wisely. Any partners, any other employees, and any investors that you pick-up will either be tailwinds behind you if you choose smartly, or headwinds blowing you off course if you choose poorly. You don’t need to people who are your best friends – you do need to be folks with whom you can have a productive working relationship. The personal qualities that Marc Andreessen looks for in hiring work as well as any I’ve seen:
  3. Get a spectrum of backgrounds and skills. Founder Dating does something similar by attempting to pair folks together in early stage companies. As you grow and build – provided you do – resist the temptation to surround yourself with people like you. Diversity in a lot of ways is a good thing: there’s a reason why species that are more diverse tend to survive longer. Pick people who have not just different sector experiences, but different functional and life experiences. Some gray hairs to go along with just-started-shaving types is not such as bad idea. Find advisors, investors (the work with versus the drive by type) and employees who additively give your company more when you bring them on board.
  4. Ask for help. There is temptation and go it alone, to shoulder the burden totally. Don’t. Ask for help. Mark Pincus’ (founder and CEO of Zynga) recent interview with Adam Bryant in the New York Times – Everyone Should Be the CEO of Somethingexpresses it well. Sort of like the Field of Dreams mantra – “if you build it they will come” – if you ask people they will help.
  5. Have a road map. Road Trip is an exercise start-ups (and sometimes senior leadership teams) go through as part of my practice to clarify destination, deliverables, roles and responsibilities, and how folks are going to work together. Teams that have those things down pat according to team experts like Douglas Smith (no relation) and Jon Katzenbach perform. Teams that don’t have it together struggle.
  6. Unlike other maps, this map should be done on a whiteboard. Changes will happen, but the need to have a sense of destination, deliverables, roles and responsibilities, and how you work with one another won’t.

That’s it. No hidden “secrets” – just lots of common sense 80% rules to get you on your way. Have fun! It’s a blast.