My best ideas come to me between the hours of 2 and 4 a.m. This is not by design — in fact, I wish it weren’t the case — but, as an entrepreneur, I roll with it. My third child is a terrible sleeper. In her two years, she hasn’t slept through the night once. When she wakes up in the wee hours, and it’s my turn to comfort her, sometimes I can’t fall back asleep. I tiptoe out of the room, flip on my iPad, and work on my new startup.
It’s counterintuitive, but of all the experiences I’ve had over the course of my life — including starting a business incubator, stints in government and at big corporations, and teaching in MBA programs — perhaps the thing that’s prepared me most for entrepreneurship is parenting.
Many words can come to mind: new, exciting, experimental, small, lean, agile, fast. To me, “startup” mostly makes me think of “agile” and “fast.”
In an early stage startup, everybody is focused on the same thing. People are passionate, enthusiastic, hungry for an opportunity to change the world, and they will do whatever it takes to get things done. At a headcount of 5-10 people, coordination comes naturally. There are no legacy processes to slow things down. Without existing customers, the team is free to modify their products and services as they learn more. There is also a shared sense of urgency. So they run fast: because it’s fun, because they can, and because they have to.
When it comes to startup strategies, many entrepreneurs assume there is one optimal path. They may need to experiment or “pivot” initially among alternatives, but once they fix on an ideal strategy they simply need to execute. For example, a startup attempting to commercialize a new technology faces the strategic choice of whether to “go it alone” or cooperate with existing companies. Entrepreneurs are often taught to settle on a single strategy rather than trying to do too many things at once, but for some new ventures it may be advantageous to adopt multiple strategies—sequentially.
A new way to look at strategy involves the concept of a “switchback.” Think of a hill that is too steep to directly climb. An alternative is to proceed diagonally up the grade, eventually reversing direction, similar to mountain trains like the Darjeeling Express. It may seem like a slower path—and may even involve some backtracking—but in the end the climber reaches the top rather than getting stuck when trying to go directly.
This approach can work for entrepreneurs too. If the climb to their ideal commercialization strategy is too steep, they may build a “strategic switchback” in that they initially pursue a different strategy—which would be suboptimal in the long run—but which enables later switching back to their ideal strategy.
This is different from the popular notion of “pivoting,” where the entrepreneur iterates through a series of experiments to find potential approaches to the market. While pivoting involves trying multiple approaches in a trial-and-error fashion, switchbacks depend on the success of the initial strategy—not failure. It’s only when that initial strategy works that the startup is able to switch to its originally preferred strategy.
In 2013, I wrote a light piece for Forbes about the “Six Whopping Lies Told About Entrepreneurs” but in hindsight I left out the biggest myth of all about entrepreneurship itself. The single most overrated, and yet common, belief about entrepreneurship is that the idea is paramount.
Yes, an idea is necessary, but it is so much less important than the discipline and process with which the idea is pursued. And, interestingly, all of these are even less important than the quality of the founding team.
The belief that the idea is important becomes invalidated when you work with successful entrepreneurs and begin to see a common pattern emerge: how an original idea morphs and evolves over time as the team does primary market research and starts to focus on customer needs, rather than their initial eureka moment. This observation is borne out in recent research by Professor Matt Marx of MIT, summarized in “Shooting for Startup Success? Take a Detour,” showing that for successful entrepreneurs, the idea they originally started out with is rarely the same as what they ended up succeeding with.
The idea of a better search engine wasn’t novel before Google got started; its value creation was all in the high-quality execution. Similarly, the concept of an electric car was not new when Elon Musk started Tesla, yet it has experienced unprecedented success while others before and since have failed. Likewise for the smartphone and Apple.
Valuing a company is always a mix of science and art, especially for startups. Historically the science has been pretty simple: Find comparable companies and do a multiple of earnings or revenue.
However, three drivers of startup valuation have emerged that are changing the game. “Acquihire,” is the act of buying out a company for the skills and expertise of its staff. It has become so well-known that it is even listed in the Oxford English Dictionary. When Facebook buys a company like Hot Potato, it’s not for the revenue stream or products — it’s for the employees.