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Mark Mader at Startup Day 2016
Mark Mader at Startup Day 2016

Smartsheet CEO Mark Mader sometimes commutes to work in a used Sea-Doo that he purchased to avoid traffic. So who better to share startup lessons from the sea? That was the theme of Maders recent talk at GeekWire Startup Day: A series of nautical-inspired tips for entrepreneurs.

Watch the video of his talk below, and continue reading for his tips and slides.


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Go full throttle. When you’re in a boat, you have to gun the engine, or you’ll drift and hit the dock, explained Mader. So, too, with a startup. Once you make the decision to start a company, give it your all. Jump in there are just start learning, asking other members of the tech community what went right and what went wrong with their companies, he said.

Dress for success. Before you start your trip on the water, you need the right outfit — a life jacket, waterproof jacket, orange pants for visibility, and even sunglasses for eye protection in case you hit a bird, said Mader. When you bring your pitch to investors, you need also need to have the right presentation. Prepare your pitch beforehand and look good. “Every phrase that comes out of your mouth matters,” he said. When there are millions on the line, make sure you look presentable and trustworthy, he said.

Don’t abandon ship. Anytime you’re on the water, there is a risk that a big wave will hit your boat unexpectedly. When that happens, the worst thing you can do is freak out. Same with a startup. When you find yourself facing a big problem, dig in instead of giving up. For instance, once when Smartsheet pushed a big software update, they went dark, said Mader. “You cannot abandon ship,” he said. “You need to run that thing through the tough water.”

Avoid the fog-bank. On the water, fog can roll in quickly and unexpectedly. It’s important to have a strategy to deal with the unexpected. In a startup, things can change really fast, Mader said. “You can’t control all the variables and you can can’t react in a volatile manner when they do happen.”

Catch the fish. Mader likes to fish. From years on the water, he knows when they’re biting. In that vein, Mader recommends learning how your customers operate and find out when and how they sign up for and use your products and services. For instance, January, October and May are big for Smartsheet signups, so they prepare for those as their big months, laying down plans in advance so they can capitalize on their best seasons.

Obey the law. Once, Mader was caught by the coast guard with an expired flare in his boat. The fine was $1500. In his startup, Mader makes sure to follow the law, paying taxes and paying attention the legals around customer contracts, he said. He also stressed the importance of following unwritten laws, like maintaining commitments to customers and telling people the true state of the business during hiring. “People have long memories and in small communities like Bellevue and Seattle, it’s amazing how those things can come back to get you.”

Invest in redundancy. There’s a rule in boating that you know you’re ready to go when you can lose 2 engines and still be fine. If you believe you’re going to be a big company, make both your systems and personnel redundant. “How many situations do I have where one person has that knowledge?” Mader asked. “If that person gets run over by a bus, what do we do?” Redundancy ensures that your startup has flexibility.

Know the waters. When Mader kayaks on the lake, he goes in with an expectation of what the water will be like so he can be prepared. As an entrepreneur, he likes to know the market waters so that he can be prepared to make a reasonable pitch to investors. “The investor is going to want to know that you know the context in which you’re operating,” he said.

Rough isn’t bad. Rough waters aren’t necessarily bad, Mader said. When many people see that the tide is changing and that the current is against them, they stop and wait. Mader thinks this isn’t always the best strategy. “If the thing you have is demonstrating amazing pick up with the clients and you’re able to monetize and you’re able to demonstrate success in a tough time, it might even be a better time to go out,” he said. “It is fine to proceed and go get capital if you have something special.”

Quality is key. A big fish strikes. Are you worried about your line being frayed? Mader ensures that his product and team are quality so that when a big opportunity comes along, he know that they can land it. this is the reason he interviews every single support representative hired at Smartsheet. “What is the brand experience you’re projecting?” he asked. “That brand is essential.”

Fish multiple rods. There is no luck in fishing, Mader said. There’s only testing waters, changing lures, and seeing what works. For product development, the same goes. Run multiple tests until you know the best way to run your company. “Always be testing and understand the techniques you use to do so,” he said. “Use data to your advantage.”

Buy that lure. If there’s a lure that evidence shows will work on the fish you want to catch, then buy it, Mader said. Likewise, when the time is right, take action, and cash in your investments. There is one category in Smartsheet’s business for which the company pays $700,000 a month and the reason is because that particular service gives big returns.

Some get away. Don’t mourn the fish you didn’t catch, Mader says. He admits that he’s jealous of his brother, who caught a 64 pound salmon — the biggest fish Mader ever caught was 28 pounds — but he advises startups not to dwell on what they don’t have. “You will not win them all,” he said. “Move on.”

Look for rainbows. Mader often faces rainy days out on the water during his commute. Instead of thinking about the rain, Mader says he’s always on the lookout for rainbows in the sky. It could be a new investor, it could be a great employee. “Be in a position to get surprised,” he said. “Look up and enjoy it.” If your attitude is to seek out the positives, it will give you the energy to keep going, he said.

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