Whether it’s football, startups, or even life, you really need to nail the fundamentals before you can succeed. GeekWire Startup Day featured a slew of CEOs who’ve been there, done that. Sure, a lot of this stuff may sound basic — or even like a broken record — but you have to walk before you can run, Grasshopper.
Here are the basic truths on getting your startup game on:
1. Your life is going to suck for a long time. Unless you’re a trust-funder or married rich, you are going to give up a lot when you enter startup land. Almost every CEO stressed the reality that you will work incredibly long hours for little to no reward for a very long time. Unikrn’s CEO Rahul Sood offered this dose of reality: “You want a lifestyle? Stay at Amazon or Microsoft. They pay you really well. But if you want growth, you have to go out and be an entrepreneur. It’s the only way you’re going to get growth and you have to expect you won’t be paid as much.”
2. Fail fast and cheap. Koru CEO Kristen Hamilton said her company is based on pure “grit.” She stressed the ability to admit failures early and move on. “Hold each other accountable to be your best selves,” she said. “Fail fast and cheap. We call this ‘radical authenticity’ at my company. Have those hard conversations in the moment.”
3. Set the right culture from the start. Almost every CEO said that your company culture — and who you choose to partner with — will impact everything that comes next. Choose people who complement your skills and are just as passionate about your idea as well as working long hours and digging in for little pay. Talk about what kind of culture you want up front. “When the shit hits the fan — and the shit will hit the fan — it’s the thing that makes the team figure it out together,” Koru’s Hamilton says. “You have to imprint culture before you hit 50 people. It’s the rule of 50. Culture, clear principles and values.”
4. Have that drive and passion from the get-go. “You have to be hungry for creating something,” says Unikrn’s Sood. “You also have to believe you have a great idea and the people around you have to agree.” Inspire others. If you don’t believe in it, why should they? “The need has to be as emotional as intellectual,” says Concur co-founder Raj Singh. “If you’re doing it to make $10 million, that’s not enough…Have the right reasons.”
5. Network like mad. It’s true that showing up is most of life. Network, network, network, no matter what. “That first year, I literally spent four to five hours per day having meetings in coffeeshops,” said Bryan Mistele, CEO of INRIX. “And I don’t drink coffee.”
6. Be Mindful. Cheezburger’s Ben Huh has definitely seen the highs and lows of several startups. In recent years, he asked himself, “How did it get so fucking complicated?” Huh realized he had to step back and regroup a bit. He got help with the day-to-day operations, some CEO coaching and started meditating. “Give in to fears. You have to face it. Sometimes it’s better to just give in and recognize you have these fears,” he says. “Enjoy the grind. It sucks, it happens every day, but you start to see the beauty in it. If you improve just 1 percent a day, in a year, you’ll improve 365 percent.”
7. Create a killer brand. Defunct women’s eyewear site Rivet & Sway CEO Sarah Bryar presented on lessons learned from a failed startup. And despite that company’s demise, they did create a memorable brand that had a distinctive look and feel — which made their customers engage with them online. “A well-crafted brand is powerful,” she says. “Your brand is working when your customers are taking pictures of the packaging and sharing it on Instagram.”
8. You will work your ass off. Seattle chef and restaurant owner Ethan Stowell admits he’s more of a hard worker than a good cook: “You need a small amount of talent, and a large amount of work ethic, resiliency and determination…The hard work is really what it is.”
9. VCs can smell your bullshit. Our panel who judged the Elevator Pitch session — John Connors of Ignition, Jason Stoffer of Maveron and Bill Bryant of DFJ — shared a few things they’re looking for in addition to your product idea. Authenticity, motivation, knowing your market and competition, having valid customer feedback, offering great service, and the amount of thought you put behind your company all scored high on their lists.
10. Know when to break up: Startups are a lot like marriages. Jordan Ritter, Napster and Ivy Softworks co-founder, shared an experience with a startup that didn’t work out no matter how hard he tried to make it work: “I felt guilt, shame, self-judgment with this thing I had led and really struggled with to put together. Then I got to the point that I wasn’t happy.” The lesson here? “You will suffer. It’s better to suffer alone than to suffer with fools…but with the right people you will suffer happily.”
11. Give back. Stowell has a goal of doing one charity-related deed every week. Once you’ve achieved some success, don’t forget to contribute back into the system if you can.