Last Thursday, Christian and I were asked to give a guest lecture at the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon. We were asked to describe 3 things we have done right for our startup and three things we did very wrong. (Why is it always easier to come up with the list of things we did wrong?) I thought it might be helpful to share what we presented.
In this post, I am going to start with 3 things we did right:
1. Never give up
Running a startup is hard, harder than anything you have ever had to do. Your relationships suffer, your emotions ride a never-ending roller coaster, and you pretty much never stop working. I’d like to tell you it will all work out in the end, but the truth is nobody really knows.
I think Paul Graham did a great job describing a key philosophy of any successful startup – just don’t die. We first started ReelSurfer in 2008 as a consumer web site to let anyone find his or her favorite movie quote. Then, we pivoted into the enterprise and sold end-to-end video solutions to universities and conferences. We were bootstrapping the company at the time we made the shift and followed the revenue. Without moving into the enterprise, we would have never been able to turn our focus back to the consumer space and launch the ReelSurfer that exists today.
The truth is, I don’t think Christian and I ever really wanted to build an enterprise company, but we were both willing to do what was necessary. If we hadn’t, Christian would be working for Microsoft and I would be in New York buying and selling oil futures. I think we are both pretty glad we stuck with it.
After this point, we were asked a question so interesting I had to include it here: how do you stay motivated when things are looking bleak? The truth is it’s very difficult. For the first couple years, I was working at home and doing sales calls from my apartment. When you are doing sales for an early-stage startup you live and die with each customer. Some days were filled with elation and some were pretty dark. It really made me learn two things, first to try not to believe the hype when things are going well and don’t panic when things seem to be falling apart. The second is just to enjoy the ride. Successes and failures that seem so important at the time are fleeting. If you can, stop and enjoy going to meetings with people that few have the opportunity to, and working with a team of your friends all day – things will never seem so bad.
2. Go out of your way to be helpful to people
I just saw the movie Pay it Forward (I know it’s famous). It was worth the wait and I think I saw it at the perfect time in my life. For those that have not seen it, Kevin Spacey is a teacher who challenges his students to change the world. One of his students devises a scheme to randomly help 3 people with the hope that they will go on and help 3 others, which will spread to everyone in the world: http://reelsurfer.com/watch/share/21986. Cool, right?
Our startup journey is full of people that have gone out of their way to help us. I have to thank our advisors, investors and all others who have taken time out of their schedules to further our careers not only as a company but also personally. I feel like it is an obligation for everyone to help those “with something big, something they can’t do by themselves.” You never really know how it will work out.
When we were running our enterprise company, I got a phone call from a professor that was working on her syllabus for an upcoming class. Since the class incorporated video she felt like I would be a great person to consult with. Even though it was not our business exactly, I was happy to help and didn’t ask for anything in return. It turned out that she later became the Dean of her school and ended up being one of our early customers at ReelSurfer.
You really don’t know how helping others may come back to you. Pay it forward.
3. Never stop learning
Christian and I both believe that no matter what you are doing it is important to keep improving your skills. Out of Stanford, Christian took a full-time job at Microsoft. As we build our team, he tells me that his time there was invaluable. In addition to learning new languages, he was able to learn procedure and how to make a large-scale product for millions of users. As he starts to manage our development team, what he learned there could not be more useful.
This form of structured learning is another reason why I always shudder a bit when people drop out of college to pursue building a company. I am the first to admit there are exceptions that have achieved wild success, but I worry that leaving early forces you to skip foundational knowledge. To take a sports analogy, for every Lebron James and Kobe Bryant there are also hundreds of basketball players that never made it to the NBA.
I definitely understand the allure. In fact, after college instead of taking a traditional job I started a tutoring company to help pay rent and get my feet wet running a business. Some things I learned on the fly, sure, but I feel like what I learned at school (both in the classroom and also outside just learning to be an adult) helped the business succeed. I am talking about simple things like how to deal with people, how to manage stress, and how to relate to someone on different levels. I can almost say for a fact that if I started the company while in school it would not have gone well.
Would love to hear things that you have done right with your startup in the comments below. Stay tuned, in part two of this post I’ll describe the 3 things that we have done wrong.
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