March 29, 2010
One of the things I most love about startup companies is the ability for talent to really move the dial. At large companies, with established products and process, great talent is more likely to incrementally make an impact than dramatically make an impact. At a small startup great talent is often the difference between success and failure. Obviously, entrepreneurs cannot control every variable that affects their companies, but they can control an order of magnitude more than managers running large established businesses.
During my first year running Brontes, I wasn’t in control; the business was happening to me. We were very late on engineering deadlines and not converging on a critical technical proof point. If you asked me in December 2004, how things were going, after a few drinks, I would likely have told you that we were struggling due to the engineering program and there was little that I could do about it. I truly felt it was out of my hands. It took the urging of my Board of Directors to take some type of action.
It is for this reason that I strongly counsel entrepreneurs not to let their startup happen to them. Startups move really fast and inertia will pull a startup in a particular path of momentum. Successful founders typically talk about how the decisions the company made resulted in a great outcome and struggling founders typically speak about the factors that were out of their control that resulted in a challenging business. Obviously, some of this is attributed to the classic adage that “success has many fathers and failure has none.” People love to take credit when things go well and fail to take responsibility when they don’t. Certainly, the truth is somewhere in between.
However, I would suggest that there is another factor here. I believe that successful founders drive their businesses and for many struggling founders the startup’s inertia moves forward too fast, and they don’t take action soon enough; the startup happens to them.
In early 2005, I finally took action at Brontes by getting a third party assessment of our progress, changing our approach and adding critical resources. From this experience I realized that I could never again let the business happen to me. I had to drive the business to success. I became very aggressive about anticipating areas of weakness and pushing to improve those areas early. I looked for likely failure modes in my business and fought hard to remove them. It was in my control to make the business a success and, if we failed, I wanted it to be as a result of making the wrong decisions, rather than not aggressively managing to success.
If you’re a startup CEO and you’re struggling right now, don’t forget that you’re in control of your own destiny. Promise yourself that if you struggle, it will be a result of your actions and not your inactions. Don’t let your startup happen to you.
March 19, 2010
Every domain has its heroes. In Greek mythology, the heroes were warriors that prevailed over monsters and pleased the gods. In Roman times the heroes were Generals that helped conquer the known world. To Shakespeare the heroes were the virtuous lovers who would die for love. Politics has its heroes (fewer in modern times). As do comic books, Hollywood and professional sports.
In my world of fast-growth startups and venture capital, the heroes are the founders. There is simply something magical about a person deciding to spend all her time, energy and resources pursuing a vision that most people consider crazy. That simple act of a founder deciding “I’m 100% committed” is the catalyst that inspires others to rally and makes great companies possible. Starting with little but an idea, founders begin a long road to creating value and hopefully building an important company. It is the commitment of the founder, way more than the idea, that makes a startup possible. There are few roads as challenging as creating something from nothing and few that are as rewarding.
When I was thinking about starting my first company in 1999, I was 23 years old and knew very few young and successful founders. I was unsure if my ambitions were way out of line with my capabilities. I cannot say for sure where I found the confidence, but I give some credit to two role models who at a distance inspired me. Interestingly, I never spoke to either of these people about starting a company, but simply knowing that they were my peers, had taken the leap, and had success gave me the confidence to quit my job and pursue my vision. By saying that I was 100% committed, I was able to rally support from co-founders, advisors, and ultimately customers and a company was born.
I’m introducing a new speaker series called Founder Dialogues to feature successful founders as the heroes that they are. I hope that Founder Dialogues will help inspire new founders who have the vision and energy to build great companies, but need to see role models and understand their stories to see what’s possible. I hope it will help current founders to persevere through tough times. I hope it will help founders with some early success to be more prepared for the road ahead.
Founder Dialogues will be a Cambridge-based event series open to the public. At each event, I will interview a great local founder who built an important company from nothing. We’ll explore what made them entrepreneurs, how they got conviction, the challenges, the near death experiences, and the advice they have for others interested in following their footsteps.
My first guest is Tim Healy, the CEO and Founder of EnerNOC. Tim is an extraordinary entrepreneur. Tim became an entrepreneur in his early twenties as a co-founder of Student Advantage, which eighteen years later remains a leading media and commerce company focused on the higher education market. In his early 30s, Tim co-founded EnerNOC, which uses demand response to help commercial organizations use energy more intelligently and generate cash flow by reducing consumption during peak grid usage. Today EnerNOC is a public company with nearly 400 employees generating almost $200MM a year in annual revenue and has approximately a $750MM market cap. Not bad in less than 10 years.
I hope that you’ll join me at 5:30 P.M. on April 12th at the Regatta Bar at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge to hear more about Tim’s entrepreneurial journey.