(As posted on bostinno.com/channel/smak)
So we are a weekend away from hearing if we are getting into MassChallenge. Smak like 1200 other startups hopes to be part of the most energetic startup ecosystem Boston has ever seen. For us this would be round 2, having been fortunate enough to participate in the 2011 program.
So I wanted to take a moment to share some thoughts and experiences for others hoping to realize their dream of being successful startups. As CEO and co-founder of Smak, I have found starting a software business full of excitement and terror. Recently I have been telling people startup life is somewhere between suicide and Instragram.
Here are a few things I have learned the hard way:
1) Curb your enthusiasm but not your passion.
It’s awesome all the things you can do, all the places you can take your company, own it. Seriously own it like your bank card, keep it protected deep in your wallet or purse. If you let your ideas fly loosely you will set yourself up for frustration very quickly and you will confuse your brand out of the gate. Unfortunately in the startup scene you will learn about the BHAG - “Big Hairy Audacious Goal”. You will be told you must have one. Translate that very quickly into a very small vision that is big to you. What investors and mentors want from you is a product you can pump out in the next 6months that will get consistent customers.
After a year of not having a vertical focus, Smak has finally locked on to the recruiter market. Investors are returning my calls, sign ups are accelerating, and our marketing and product alignment are starting to really gel and take shape.
Every startup I’ve seen get real traction and success in accelerators did one thing really well. Find that.
2) A world full of headlines
Leave jealousy at the door and put on your learning cap!
You will find yourself getting pissed every time you read a headline about another company getting investment, press pick-up, a killer advisor. Get over it, and quickly. This is not a time for whining and moaning and self-pity, it’s a time for you to imitate and improve. The whole part of being in the ecosystem is to learn from others and build skills (or find people who have them) that will take you to the next level.
A perfect example of this for me was in March, 2012 when Paul Graham released the blog “Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas” #2 – a new Email client, Ugh! everyone and their brother felt obligated to tell me about this post making me really question whether Smak was such a good idea. At the same time Engage.io a Smak competitor announced a great round of funding after only being around for 4months. For weeks I was like “what are we doing, how can we possibly compete with guys like this”. Then I read a post by the founderWilliam Mougayar. Reality is he had been working on this for years, struggled significantly, and continuing to fight for his vision.
So I got over my jealousy, studied and watched him closely, learning, learning, learning. He is amazing, and I have learned so much from him in just a few short weeks. So don’t let the headlines beat you down, dig into what is behind the headlines.
3) You don’t ask, you don’t get
One of the biggest mistakes we made in the 2011 program is we did not ask enough.
Ask quickly, ask often, ask specifically. You are going to hear an expression: “Ask for money and you’ll get advice, ask for advice and you’ll get money”. My experience is I asked for advice and I got… advice!
Boston has incredible resources, but like any resource it’s limited. Funds, people’s time to help, technical talent are all limited pools that a lot of other companies are competing for. Figure out what you truly need and make that all you need.
We wasted a lot of cycles last year on investors. We thought we needed money (cause we did), but we didn’t have product market fit yet. Once we realized that we could never get money without market fit and customers we stopped wasting time on getting funds and focused getting out of Alpha and into Beta. Now that we had market fit next we needed customers. Now we need cash and because we have market fit and customers, we’ll get it.
So here’s the point! If you don’t have a production ready product yet and get an intro to a VC, understand you will likely not get money from them, however you could get access to their Entrepreneur in Residence who could give you some awesome guidance. If you waste time going after money you are really not ready for, you lose the opportunity to get what you really need which is validation and direction. Remember point 2 above, “learning” is critical at this stage of your business.
I wish everyone of the 1200 all the best in their business, whether they get intoMassChallenge.