Sometimes what seems like the smallest of things can actually be the most important. I find this particularly true in a tech startup environment, where the margin of error for success is very thin almost by definition. When starting up a software or hardware company the focus is rightly on critical topics like product strategic advantage, recruiting the senior management team and securing the required amount of funding. But there are many seemingly “background’ startup support items that I find can lead to failure, or at least materially reduce the chances of success, if they aren’t considered and thoughtfully addressed.
Let’s take a look at a few:
Personal Startup Support System
Of all the categories of items that indirectly affect early stage technology businesses I believe the category of personal relationships is probably the most important. This might be a bit counter-intuitive to some. But your personal life provides the stability (or not) which will enable you to stay the course throughout the inevitable and numerous challenges that founders, CEOs and senior managers face in the course of driving an embryonic business toward the initial goal: going-concern status.
Significant Other Buy-in
First and foremost is your husband, wife or significant other. That relationship is CRITICAL for support during the tough times every startup will face. Imo, it’s very important to enlist your spouses’ support well before the actual startup begins. Make CERTAIN that she or he understands what’s ahead – and focus on the hard times!. It’s very important that they’re not surprised when in some phases you’re working 100 hour weeks or that they are taking on a very outsized portion of home-related duties. Some are more equipped to deal with a life partner involved in a startup than others, by background, temperament and their own bandwidth to pick up the slack. It’s also helpful if you can provide some modest benefits of the new to the at-home partner along the journey. The startup path is usually a long slog, with most of the payoff at the end. But “all pay with no play” can grind down the support of your partner. So whether it’s a party with new company friends or some unexpected travel opportunities, try to find something to keep your partner engaged in the business in a positive way. I consider the positive support of a home partner to be the most important aspect of any startup support system to enable a founder’s sanity. But in fact, no partner at home is probably preferable in a startup situation to a non-supportive one, or even one providing lukewarm or varying support. So above all if there is a home partner involved, make sure that you not only fully inform them of what’s ahead, but that you have their full buy-in BEFORE embarking on your new venture.
Outlets and activities
The startup life is quite often all-encompassing, with little time for any discretionary outside activities. But I believe it is important to make some time for distractions; even if it’s just a little. Without any outlets at all it’s easy to develop tunnel vision and lose the ability to “see the forest for the trees”. Mental and physical exhaustion leading to burnout is a real factor as well. Getting away from the startup company for even short – but real relaxation – is very important to support good decision-making which is critical to success. Remember, a startup is a marathon, not a sprint. I always recommend exercise as part of a personal startup support system to any founder so inclined. It’s always worked well for me; it not only gets you away from the problems for a few hours, but I’ve always found it to be a great form of stress relief as well. But outside activities really should flow from your own preferences. It could be as simple as going to the movies, dinner with friends or curling up with a good book for a few hours. Whatever works in your own life. But make sure that there is SOMETHING, or the startup monster may eat your alive, rendering you unable to think critically about the business when it’s most important.
Investors and Board of Directors
Everyone realizes how critical it is to obtain the proper level of funding required to be successful in a tech startup. Who you get the funding from often defines in great part who will be on your board, along with the founders. Less attention is often paid to the personalities of the board members and the founders chemistry with them. Board dynamics is a very important factor in many startup success (and failure) stories. Everyone doesn’t need to “fit like a glove” and be your best friend. But it’s important that they provide a startup support system for you and the business; your interactions should be positive and not a distraction. Sometimes board members just “don’t fit” with the founders from a personality or communication-style point of view. Occasionally they can be “bad people”, who’s intentions for some reason aren’t well aligned with the founders or the business. The money is important, but it isn’t everything. Try your best to ensure up front that you will have at least the minimally-required functioning board necessary for success; preferably a highly supportive one that you can rely on for honesty, support and positive counsel.
Mentors and Advisory Boards
In some cases the Board or Directors fulfills the role of mentors and advisory board. But I find that more often than not, that’s not fully the case. Board’s of Directors in SaaS, software or hardware startups are most often composed of founders and representatives of the investors, than they are folks chosen specifically for objective advice and mentoring. Many investors make great advisors and mentors. But the simple fact of having money invested in a company often changes the potential relationship, even if it’s subtle. Co-founders can also be great sounding boards and a source of peer support in many cases. But there just are many situations and decisions that may not be ideal to discuss upfront with investors or your co-founders. Decisions that you may prefer to delay until you’ve had a chance to think it through first. That’s where an outside mentor or advisors can be invaluable, providing an objective, 3rd party sounding board and advice from a senior peer who can give you honest feedback while allowing you to “talk the situation through” without immediate repercussions. In addition, while many investors have rich operating backgrounds, it’s not likely that they completely cover every functional area and experience that you as a startup management team could utilize. Forming an advisory board with experts in areas that complement the backgrounds of the senior startup management team can be extremely helpful in many instances.
Finally, while this doesn’t seem like part of a “startup support system”, maybe the most important thing is your own attitudes and expectations. Everyone is different, and for different personality types it might take a different type of attitude to “make it through to the distance”. For myself, that has always been keeping a “realistic” attitude about how most startups end up (in failure!), coupled with both optimism about our specific situation as as well as a “no quit” attitude that holds until someone comes in and finally turns out the lights. For others, it might mean a relentlessly positive attitude where no negative thoughts whatsoever sink in. Other types of folks might benefit mentally by keeping very low expectations, which then leads to unexpected pleasure when things go better than expected. I’m not a psychologist, but I believe there are a lot of different personality types out there and they don’t all handle everything the same way. The key point is to know yourself and to maximize whatever frame of mind will allow you to give the very best effort over a long period of time.
That’s my overview of some background startup support system items to think about when putting together a technology startup. Every situation is quite different and some of the items listed above may not be relevant to you. Other not listed may be critical. I put this article together to stimulate the founder thought process on the overall topic. What “background” issues are critical to your own success? Enlighten us with your additions to the list by posting a comment below.