Nov 11, 2009 - Business    No Comments

5 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me (about starting a company)

I had the opportunity to talk about Bluyah at last night’s Seattle Tech Startups event.   I have to be honest.  I really hate “public speaking.”  Granted, it gets a bit easier each time I get up and do it, but if I didn’t have to do it, I’d be that much happier.  That said, I love talking with people about our service, our long-term vision and what we’re attempting to accomplish with Bluyah.  It almost makes the “public” part of it all bearable.

At the STS event someone asked me what our biggest challenge to-date had been.  I talked a bit about our troubles with user-generated XML, as well as the more general challenge of reaching the “right” people at the “right” companies who could help us gain “traction” in a market saturated with big players with even bigger pockets.

Later that evening, while talking with @freelock and @justinsaul over a couple of drinks, I realized that what I should have said is this:

1. No one will ever be as excited about your [product, service, business] as you are.

In hindsight, this should seem obvious.  But it wasn’t to me in the beginning.  I saw myself as an evangelist who’s mission was to convert the uninitiated into faithful followers.  In reality, it’s been more like being a shepherd trying to herd a flock of ambivalent geese through an obstacle course.

There are those that will nod approvingly and head in the general direction you’ve pointed, but you know in your gut they’re not fully committed and probably don’t even know themselves why they’re headed in the direction they’re headed.  These are the “yes” folks: Yes we want that feature (even though we didn’t ask for it); Yes we will be a referral customer (even though we haven’t fully adopted the service); Yes we love the service (until our free trial runs out).

Then there are those that will fight you every step of the way, regardless of where you’re headed.  These are the “no” folks: No we will not use your service (even though we’ve repeatedly told you we desperately need a solution eerily similar to what you’re offering);  No we will not lend you money or invest in your idea (even though we find it very intriguing and really want to talk with you when sales reach $500k); No we do not think the market is in need of a shakeup (maybe because we just don’t like change).

Finally, there are those who could care less about what you’re doing.  You’re not Twitter, Facebook, developing iPhone apps, and/or have ever had a write-up in TechCrunch, so you’re …. (yawn) …. just not that interesting.  It doesn’t matter if you’re curing cancer or making data transformation easier for non-techies – you’re just not sexy enough for a second look.

Realize this.  Get over it.  Then move on.

2. Everyone expects something from you.

Employees expect a paycheck.  They don’t care that revenues are in the toilet.  They have rent to pay, food to put on the table, and if you’re not delivering there are plenty of companies in town who will.

Partners expect a boost in revenues.  They only partnered with you in the first place because they expected your service/product to get them more sales and/or customers than what they had before.  They’re not in business to be your friend or mentor or helping-hand.  They’re in business to make money and if you’re not helping them do that, they will move on.

Advisors / Mentors / Consultants expect a return on their “investment”.  Granted, that investment may just be an hour of their time every month or so – but they view their time as having value (which it does) and they expect a dividend for providing that time (which they should).  If you’re lucky, that dividend could be a nice bottle of wine and a thank you card.  If you’re “normal” that dividend is probably going to be something along the lines of an equity stake in your business.  And if it’s something more than that, you’re probably being taken advantage of.

Understand this.  Accept that everyone will put a higher value on their contribution to your vision than you will.  Don’t fight this.  Discuss it openly and honestly.  Haggle for the lowest price you can get.  But at the end of the day, understand that you will always pay more (in many ways) than what you had hoped or planned to pay.

3. Never implement a feature for a “potential” customer

I kick myself for having to even write this one down.  But I speak from experience.  Unless a potential customer is showing up with cash in hand and saying “build this for me and all I have here is yours” you should politely pass.  Or better yet, convince them that all they desire is theirs once they become a customer.  And then delay as long as is humanly possible.

The second part of this is “the customer is not always right.”  Most of the time they are, but not always.   The customer cares about themselves first and your business vision a distant seventy-eighth or so.  They only use your product or service because it makes their life better in some way.  Never lose sight of this.  If you’re not making their life sexier/better/richer/more fulfilling they will move on to someone who can satisfy those need.

All of the feature requests a customer gives you are going to be about them and their needs.  They don’t care if adding this feature will cause 99% of your other customers to be targeted by incoming ICBMs as a result (and why should they?).  They want their feature — and they want it now.

It’s a balancing act, sure.  But at the end of the day you have to ask yourself if satisfying an individual customer’s request is going to make your service/product better for all customers.  If it is, great.  Go for it.  But if it’s not … well, this is where the art of business comes into play.

That said, be prepared to do backflips on-demand for those customers who are your bread and butter.  If they say jump you should be asking “Is this high enough?” before they’ve finished speaking.

4. Keep your eye on the prize

It’s very easy to get distracted.  We do a lot of consulting work and other  “necessary” duties in order to keep the lights on, the paychecks coming, and the servers (as virtual as they are) up and running.

Be prepared for this.

But don’t let it distract you from your ultimate goal.  And if it does starts distracting you, find a way (and quickly) to  get back on track.  Maybe that means you rethink your marketing strategy (or restructure your initial product, like we did).  Maybe for you it means forgoing the hip downtown office in exchange for a founder’s dark basement.  Or maybe it means letting an employee or two go.  Or maybe it simply means staying cognizant of the distractions as they appear and bluntly saying  “NO”.

5. You will be forced to choose between work and family – and there’s only one right answer.

The cliche goes: “A happy wife is a happy life.”  It may be cliche, but there is a mountain of truth to it.  If your significant other absentmindedly mentions that he/she never  sees you for dinner anymore, you had better resolve the situation quickly.  If your kids start to refer to you as “that guy” as you’re headed out the door in the morning, then you had better take stock of your priorities.

No matter what you believe, or what other’s have told you, your business is rarely so fragile that  it can not suffer some minor neglect now and again.  There are probably a half-dozen other companies out there trying to do something similar to what you’re doing.  And if you’re any good at it, the competition will only increase.  Being first to market is not going to change this.  Time to market is not your enemy in these situations.  The first person out the gate doesn’t necessarily win.

As Howard Aiken once said: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If it’s original, you’ll have to ram it down their throats.”  In other words, if what you’re doing is worth anything, it’s worth doing right.  And that means taking the time to do things sanely, without burning yourself (and your family/co-worker/friends) out in the process.  Take the time to enjoy the process because it’s going to take time to get it right.

Alyssa Royse wrote a fantastic post concerning the arbitrary (and oftentimes insane) deadlines we place on ourselves in the course of running our businesses.  It’s recommended for anyone at the helm of a company.  And it should be mandatory reading for any IT person who still believes releases must go out every Thursday come hell or high-water.

Hope this helps.

[Ed Note:] This post originally appeared on the Bluyah Development Blog