8.5 The “Startup Culture”

What is entrepreneurship all about? Whether you’re doing it inside or outside of another enterprise, here are some key features (credit for much of this goes to my colleague, CJ Cornell):

  • Ownership: This doesn’t necessarily mean owning stock in a company, though of course there’s nothing wrong with that. As CJ explains to our students, it’s about owning the process, and the outcome, of what you’re doing.
  • Focus: If you can’t focus, you can’t succeed in a startup. I know this from experience; my Bayosphere project failed in part because I believed—contrary to wise admonitions from one of my investors—that I could do lots of things at once.
  • Ambiguity: Startups are full of ambiguities and even chaos. If you’re the kind of person who can’t deal with this, you may be ill-suited for entrepreneurship. Understand a rule of startups: Your ultimate product is likely to be vastly different than what you originally imagined, and it’ll keep evolving.
  • Resourcefulness: Startups have to use what’s available. If you have everything on your wish list, you’re either over-funded or under-creative.
  • Speed: Entrepreneurs move fast. They change with evolving conditions and take advantage of opportunities that emerge and disappear in short order. They make decisions and move forward.
  • Innovation: You can innovate by being more efficient or thorough, not just by inventing new technologies. The Googles are few and far between, but innovators often connect dots where others can’t imagine the connections.
  • Risk: Appreciating risk is essential to the entrepreneurial process, but it doesn’t belong at the top of the list. You minimize the risk when you can, understanding that you can’t eliminate it.

The process of entrepreneurship differs from project to project. In the digital media space, however, I’d suggest the following:

  1. Start with good idea, and above all follow your personal passion. An entrepreneur who doesn’t believe in her goal with every fiber of her being has already started to fail, in the words of Dave Winer, a serial entrepreneur and pioneer in digital media.
  2. Develop it quickly and collaboratively, using off-the-shelf tools when possible and writing code only to create the parts you can’t find elsewhere. Be open with others about what you are doing. “Stealth mode” projects can and do work out, but most ideas will find more traction with the help of others who care about what you’re doing.
  3. Launch before you think you’re fully ready, because when you launch you’re just getting started. Who says? My friend Reid Hoffman, founder of the LinkedIn network and a prescient investor in Internet companies, once told me with reference to the launch of a consumer Internet company, “If you aren’t completely embarrassed by your website when you launch, you waited too long.”
  4. Following on the previous point, assume you’ll be in beta mode for some time. You will have bugs and problems. Fix what’s broken and keep iterating.
  5. If you see that the project is going to fail, don’t prolong it. Don’t waste time, and don’t spend investors’ money after it’s clear you should stop. This may sound like a contradiction of the first point, and in some ways it is; remember what I said about ambiguity?
  6. Repeat. A smart failure teaches valuable lessons. Internal entrepreneurship in companies, also called “intrapreneurship,” should be especially forgiving of failure, assuming it’s not stupid or reckless.

While large enterprises can innovate, in the digital media world they may be better off buying or licensing from startups. Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, put it best when he said, “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.”

A good idea is only the beginning of a great startup. Entrepreneurs must appreciate the hard realities of running a business. This is as true for a non-profit as for a for-profit enterprise; making them sustainable is a core mission.

I hear about dozens of startups every month. Most will fail, but I have to stress again: This is not a flaw in the system. It’s a feature.

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