Look Before You Leap: advice for professionals considering a startup

source: www.venturebeat.com - author: Scott Cooper

Look Before You Leap: advice for professionals considering a startup


I spent the first 25 years of my career in large multi-billion dollar, multi-national corporations. I managed thousands of people in dozens of countries with budgets in the hundreds of millions.  Although I thought of myself as entrepreneurial, I didn’t have much prior startup experience when I struck out on my own to found ShopAdvisor, a shopping experience that deepens reader engagement in tablet magazines.

I had some hesitation about how applicable my experience would be in the land of incubators, hyper-speed pivots, and capital preservation. I received both encouragement and cautionary advice from some of the most successful local VCs, who were willing to help with seemingly no vested interest.

Clearly the culture is very different between a startup and corporation (beer and pizza in the car after the sales call versus corporate off-sites with fancy dinners at the world’s finest hotels). But, after a couple of years navigating the hallways of VCs and low-rent office parks, I find more than ever the instincts and experiences that served me well in corporate America are even more valuable in the startup world.

That experience helps me see what I call “invisible processes” that matter just as much as your killer 10 slide pitch. Here are a few of them.

Finding a product-market fit 

There is wealth of innovation in large companies, and often the financial wherewithal to bring new product ideas to market. The preponderance of extremely clever engineers and product managers was exhilarating, but it was my responsibility to understand that a great technology or solution also needed to fit a real market need with a channel to reach it.

This combination only comes along once in a blue moon. For many who have not been through it yet, discerning the intangibles beyond the core technology is a painful leadership lesson.

It’s no different in the startup world. In fact, the stakes are higher, as failure to detect this “invisible” requirement can lead a start-up down the wrong path with not enough resources to switch course. At ShopAdvisor, we have pivoted twice in a short period as we sought a product-market fit that works.

Navigating the “invisible” sales process

There is a normal human temptation in sales to believe your first big customer “gets” your solution in the same way you and your team thinks about it.

But customers, particularly at a large corporation, have a set of issues to deal with that are completely outside the scope of your product or service. You can’t overplay your hand with an internal advocate. And you need to understand that a relationship with a CEO is both an opportunity and a danger. Personal knowledge of how C-level internal issues affect an otherwise straightforward sales process goes a long way in taking the stress out of those first big customer wins.

Honing an investor pitch

When I started ShopAdvisor, I realized it’s not just a great sales pitch that will get investors to jump on board. It didn’t take long for me to realize that while the fundraising process itself isn’t all that tricky — the relationships, motives, and rivalries behind the process are. “You are always fundraising” remains some of the best advice I have received from a seasoned entrepreneur and friend.

This is why serial entrepreneurs do so well — they have trusted relationships with financiers based on years of working together.

There are tricks to help you fundraise, which isn’t disimilar to moving through the ranks at a large organization. The most important one: enlist a mentor, someone who has a vested interest in you, and can help you as you navigate new waters. Their guidance, expertise, perspective, and assistance will be invaluable.


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