Being a startup founder is hard, tough, frustrating and rewarding – possibly all within the space of a nanosecond. And yet, it is like a high none other. I have experienced it in others. And quietly, I have lived it for over six years. Here are some lessons I learned from my journey. They may not be universal, but these lessons learned have changed me both as a person and as a founder —Om Mailk.
At GigaOm, we are story tellers. And I believe that as story tellers, we should never really be the story. Sure, we can make an occasional appearance, but less is more. I had been writing GigaOM (the blog) since December 2001, but in 2003, I started working on a piece for Business 2.0 called The Rise of a Insta-Company, which theorized that open source, cheap bandwidth and increasingly falling cost of infrastructure would result in companies being built at a dramatically lower cost than ever before.
By 2005, it became clear that more people were reading GigaOm than they were reading my then employer, Business 2.0. Before I started GigaOm (the company) in June 2006, I had never really worked for a startup. The closest I got to having a startup experience was being a member of the founding team of Forbes.com. Sure, I wrote about startups all the time, but my work experience with a classic Silicon Valley-styled startup was non-existent.
So from day one, my knowledge about how to do a startup was zero. There weren’t any blog posts, no cheat sheets and no hands-on guides. The idea of a distributed startup built on a tiny seed investment was novel at that time. In May 2006 when folks from True Ventures gave me the check (with a message on the back saying “go make your dream come true”), I went into a panic mode.
There were many sleepless nights and countless cigarettes. I remember sitting down in the balcony of my apartment and looking into the night, taking stock of my life so far. I thought about things I had done right and things I had done wrong. What I had learned and why.
Starting up was a nerve racking experience, mostly because I had no idea what I was doing. However, as a wise man once said, every man (and woman) has to have principles. So should startups.
The four founding principles guiding GigaOm are:
- Be self aware of your strengths and weaknesses.
- Be transparent and honest with those whom you work.
- Be respectful and decent to others if you want others to be decent and respectful to you.
- Build a true, peer-to-peer management culture.
Lessons learned over the years:
1. Be completely honest with oneself and take time to self reflect before making big decisions in life.
2. Be transparent, be honest and be as clear about both good and bad news. Do that, and people will trust you. They will fight for you.
3. Be respectful, be decent to people and you will get that in return. Whether it is readers, peers, or people who do business with us, it doesn’t matter. It seemed like a good founding principle for our company.
4. Build a peer review mentoring culture. It will help avoid politics and at the same time, makes everyone proud of each other’s success. It also helps weed out the weak links without much management interference.
5. Openness is not just a word, it is a state of mind. You need to have a truly flat organization and in order to build an open-minded and cohesive team that laughs together, works together and learns to deal with adversity together.
6. It is good to know what you as a founder are good at, what you suck at, and when you need help. And sometimes that means replacing yourself as the CEO.
7. Work hard to find the essence of your company’s culture, core strengths and your way of thinking.
8. You have to walk before you run. As a founder, you often don’t understand the gulf between your vision of the future and the reality in which a business exists. It is important to find the right balance between the two.
9. Shun consensus. Don’t be shy about making difficult decisions. If you have conviction, zig when everyone is zagging. After all, the worst that can happen is that you fail. If you don’t try, you don’t fail. You don’t fail, you don’t learn. You don’t learn, you will have failed anyway.
10. People who believe in you also want to succeed. They will work better if you encourage them, not micromanage them. Empower them to win.