Rules for Entrepreneurs: Do One Thing Well

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Photo by bartb_pt on Flickr
I have been an entrepreneur for just shy of 5 years full-time. Before that, I was engaged in entrepreneurial “things” for the previous 6 years. 4 companies. I am not a perfect entrepreneur and some would argue I’m not even a successful entrepreneur since I haven’t had a successful exit yet.

However, the odds on favorite number that people in the startup community like to throw around is that 9 out of every 10 startups fails. So, as I see it, I still have 5 more failures and a win to look forward to (although I think my current startup, WP Engine, is a pretty damn good company that probably is a win).

I can say that in all of my years in this world, I’ve learned a number of things. Many of these things are through trial and error, success and failure, and good old A/B testing.

Today I’m beginning a series (revisiting an old theme from years ago when Steve Fisher wrote the “Venture Files” track on this blog – before I simplified to a single channel site that is updated far less often than it was then) providing some “rules”, as I see them.

As of now, I have six rules to share from my experiences. That may increase over time, but they are slotted and ready to go.

Focus Your Efforts

As an entrepreneur, the carrot on the stick is to provide the best damn {product} that {your target audience} has ever seen. I’ll focus on web tech startups since that’s what I know best, but the principle can cross easily into other industries as well.

Inevitably, being the best damn {product} that your {target audience} has ever seen, involves taking an already existing idea and improving on it. It’s always nice when you can do something new and innovative, but most companies aren’t and maybe shouldn’t be. It’s hard to do something completely new. One quick peruse through Angellist will show you scores of companies who are pitching their products as the {blank} for {blank}.

Examples:

  • Netflix for Digital Children’s Books
  • Twitter for images
  • Meetup for Professional Events
  • eBay for College Tutoring

While I go into manic twitching mode when I see pitches like this, I have to hand the entrepreneurs and startups credit in that they are able to clearly identify exactly what they are building and why it’s important. Sure, they have to leverage some other known entity to get their point across, but their idea is concise and communicable.

Don’t be Google

To leverage a known entity for the sake of this post, Google is a poster child for leveraging someone else idea in the entirely wrong way. Tell me what all of these products have in common:

  • Google+
  • Google Buzz
  • OpenSocial
  • Orkut

That’s right. Every single one of these products were attempts to be the entirety of something else – to take it to their biggest competition in the space. Google+ is a direct swipe at both Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Twitter. Google Buzz was a direct assault on Twitter. OpenSocial existed to provide a social networking framework and was a play to undermine Facebook. Orkut took a swipe at Friendster, both of which are essentially dead today.

In every one of these cases, Google decided to “go big or go home” and ended up going home. The most recent, Google+, is still trying to get some traction but everyone seems to be sitting back and saying, “I’ve got social network exhaustion” and don’t see the big value in Google+ over existing products that do the same thing.

The better approach, if you want to assault Facebook, is a limited, targeted, precision-strike on a single feature and knock it out of the park. Twitter already has the status update. Don’t go there. The concept of +1, is already being done by Facebook with the “Like”. In other ways, Tweetmeme has been doing the same thing by enabling users to share what they like (who’s really gonna share what they don’t like… even if they don’t literally “like” it because it may be controversial, it’s compelling enough for users to share… which is the essence of a “Like” or a “+1″?).

But perhaps Google could really target photo sharing and tagging. Picasa is already there. Make it challenge Facebook’s photo albums and tagging. No one has done social event planning very well. Even Twtvite and Eventbrite are just for event planning, but don’t do social very well.

You Have Finite Resources

As an entrepreneur, you have limited resources. The last thing you need to be doing is getting “squirrel eye” and being distracted by every cool feature you could make. Does it fit within your vision? Does it help extend the main reason for building the product? (A good example of this is Foursquare building an Explore Tab… it extends their business product vision).

Especially at the beginning, you don’t have a lot of resources. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Stay targeted and laser-focused on doing one thing and one thing well. As your company grows, you can start exploring complementary features and products. You just can’t be everything all at once.

Next time, I’ll expound on this concept by talking about competition and collaboration. You’ll want to come back. If you’re not already subscribe to this blog, do so now. Also, follow me on Twitter where I’ll be talking about entrepreneurship, WordPress and a healthy dose of sports on the weekend.

Everything I Needed to Know About Entrepreneurship, I learned from Star Wars

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Star Wars. The original Star Wars. Perhaps those movies were defining films of our time. Though the first title (aptly numbered Star Wars IV) was filmed in the late 1970s, it continues to define movie nerddom today. Of course, Star Wars has seen somewhat of a renaissance due to the licensing of the intellectual property for the creation of video games like LEGO™ Star Wars and the continual memeage (is that a word?) of Yoda and Darth Vader quotes.

Nonetheless, it, like any good story, is successful in no small part due to the parallels in life that can be drawn. Much like how Office Space taught me about Public Relations, Star Wars taught me about entrepreneurship.

Don’t doubt me. The nuggets of wisdom are strewn throughout. In fact, I’ve developed my entire professional life around Star Wars. 1 You don’t believe me? Check this out.

Always Two There Are, a Master and an Apprentice

No matter how good you are in your professional life, there is always someone better. Yoda reminds me that, there should always be someone I look up to for learning. Sometimes this person (or people) is better than you at what you do. Other times, this person (or people) is someone who excels in a complementary way.

One of the founders of WP Engine, Jason Cohen, is one of these guys. Jason is amazingly technically (if I can keep him away from Javaisms while writing PHP code) and is the brainchild behind our infrastructure. More importantly, the dude is one of the savviest businessmen around in a completely unassuming way. He is not the guy who is going to walk into a meeting a toot his own horn like some investors or entrepreneurs do. He simply is and carries chutzpah. I have not known Jason very long but in the time I have, I’ve developed a real appreciation for him.

Likewise, Geoff Livingston has become a close friend but he’s also an incredibly focused entrepreneur. I’ve known Geoff since his early days where he was running a social media PR firm out of Alexandria, VA. Geoff and I became close but it wasn’t until I lived with him for six months in 2008-09 that I realized the drive this kid had. He frequently asked for my advice on things that were happening professionally, all of which will remain off the record in the circle of trust.

However, he has demonstrated since that he knows how to make tough decisions and go after what he believes in. Earlier this year, Geoff co-founded Zoetica to assist non-profits and socially conscious companies in their communications efforts. His drive has led him to lead in the CitizenGulf effort to raise money for oil spill cleanup in the Gulf, and to raise awareness and change in the policy world.

His dedication to his cause is something I’m watching and learning from.

Yahoooooo! You’re all clear, kid. Now let’s blow this thing and go home

Remember when the Death Star invasion was happening in Star Wars IV? The X wings were being pursued down the trough by TIE fighters. Darth Vaders fighter was on the hunt to blow Luke away. Han Solo brings his Millenium Falcon into play at the last minute and with some perfectly timed shot, knocks Vaders fighter into oblivion allowing Luke to handle his business and blow the Death Star away.

In business, the ultimate goal is always to have an exit. If it’s not, you’re holding it wrong. You don’t want to stay in a job forever. You may want to delay because you have more you want to do with the startup before selling it, but at the end of the day, if you’re putting blood, sweat and tears into a startup… you want the big pay day at the end.

This is what drives many entrepreneurs to settle for less money in exchange for more equity in the startup. Get less cash now for way more cash down the road.

Like the Death Star invasion, startup mode will have you fighting a guerrilla war at times… fighting for your survival… skirmishing to get a leg up. Once you’re clear and have done everything you can to get the company to a specific place, cash in! Blow this thing and go home. Live to fight again another day.

Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?

One of the more hilariously ridiculous quotes from Star Wars IV came from Leah when Luke rescued her from being executed by the Empire.

The takeaway from this quote is pretty simple… never let anyone denigrate what you do as an entrepreneur. There will always be second guessing and there will always be other entrepreneurs who feel like thy know better and can offer advice. You know your company better than anyone else. You know your decision-making fiefdom better than anyone else. Own your offense and maintain confidence in what you do, and what you are building.

Luke, there is another Sky….walker…

The dying words of the Jedi Master Yoda. These words were the clue to Luke that he had a twin. That there could be another Jedi candidate. That there could be another Skywalker to defeat the evil Empire.

In the Lean Startup mode of starting businesses, the idea is to fail and fail fast if you’re going to fail at all. That way, if you fail and fail quickly, you can learn quickly without having put a lot of time and effort into something that will never work. Taking lessons learned, you can move on to the next startup and try again. Keep in mind that, statistically, 9 out of 10 companies fail. There is nothing wrong with failure as long as you realize there is another around the corner.

There is another Skywalker. There is another idea. There is another startup. And there may be another failure.

Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh!

We don’t know specifically what Chewbacca was talking about when the Millenium Falcon’s hyper drive system failed. If there are any Wookie translators in the audience, please step to the front of the room. However, we can deduce that, based on what we know of Chewie, that he was doing tactical consulting.

In other words, it’s my opinion, that Chewie was making sure Han knew that there was a lot of problems with the Millenium Falcon and it wasn’t like they had the money to fix the bucket of bolts. Chewie was suggesting solutions for Han to fix problems quickly without spending a lot of money. I mean, can you imagine if Han had to take a VC round to fix the Falcon? What would the valuation on that sucker be anyway? I’m sure it would be a diluted round.

Instead, Chewie was helping Han realize what he needed to do to fix the problem on a budget. Maybe even in bandaid fashion. As entrepreneurs, use your creative juices to find ways to self-fund and not take stupid money just so you can extend runway. Find ways to be revenue positive now instead of later. Find ways to cheaply outsource problems so core team members can focus on the core solutions.

See?

See. Everything you need to know about entrepreneurship can be learned from Star Wars. It’s a geek favorite for a reason. I’m sure there are lessons you have learned as well. Feel free to share those.

In the meantime, may the Force be with you.

Photo by xtyler

Notes:

  1. Not really. No, really.. not really.

The Milk Machine: Finding Business Focus

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You know how occasionally you remember things from your childhood which seem fairly mundane but end up being a moment of inspiration and, sometimes, an epiphany. I get these things all the time and I guess it just helps me appreciate my childhood even more.

Back in the late 70s and early 80s, when I was 4-5 years old and my memories were just starting to really stick with me, we were living in the inner city of Buffalo. The neighborhood is tragically drug-ridden today, and it wasn’t a fantastic neighborhood then either. It was inner city. My father grew up on those streets in the Lovejoy neighborhood as a brawler of sorts. Fighting was the problem, not drugs. How times change. But I digress.

One of the memories I remember from those days is the milk machine. This milk machine is an oddity these days. No one buys milk from milk machines and, I’ll be honest, I have no real idea why we did either. But there was a milk machine at the corner of Longnecker St and Lovejoy St and we went to buy our milk there quite often.

Considering there was a Wilson Farms (similar to 7-11) right there as well, one can only assume that mom chose to buy the milk from the machine because it was a better quality or offered a better value.

Which brings me in a long-winded way to my point. Whoever the hell owned that milk machine didn’t exactly have a huge demographic. It was basically people who could walk to it and chose to walk to it instead of Wilson Farms. I’m sure he wasn’t getting rich off the milk machine. But he was serving a very targeted audience and doing so in such a way that wasn’t trying to take over the world and be everything.

If you’ve got a startup… if you’ve got a venture… do not try to be everything to everyone. It just doesn’t work. Know your audience and what makes them tick. Figure out exactly who you’re serving and stay on track. Especially in early stages, venturing outside of the laser-like target is an expensive proposition, especially in the early stages.

Make your milk and make it good and find the machine that earns you money.

Photo Credit Robbie’s Photo Art