A funny thing happens after you sell a startup. People start asking for your recipe, as if the thing you made – a company that solves a difficult customer problem in a new way – could be neatly replicated in a test kitchen, if only other chefs knew your secret ingredients. And so, I freely give the secret: there isn’t one. There is only common sense, hard work and the humility to learn from smart people.
Use common sense. Businesses don’t succeed because their founders are ruthless competitors or smooth talkers or just plain lucky. They succeed when the people who founded them understand the essentials of company success: happy customers, happy culture, transformational ideas and awareness that all company functions are important. Different founders might pursue those goals in different ways and still succeed, but if your definition of success doesn’t involve these factors, you might run into trouble.
I had a conversation about this with a venture capitalist back in 2001. I had just founded my first company and was out raising an initial financing round. One of the VCs I spoke with, a respected investor with a solid track record, asked me what seemed like obvious questions at the time: “What would you do to make this company successful? What will success look like?” I told him I would die to ensure the company’s success, and that when I had happy customers, a happy culture and product leadership in our market, I would know we had succeeded. My answer, which felt like pure common sense, resonated with that VC, who had heard too many founders measure their future success in financial terms alone.
One thing to ask yourself often is, “Am I building a feature, a product and a company?” If it’s only the first two, you need to take a step back and take a hard look at whether you’re just building a feature set instead of a sustainable standalone company. Otherwise, you are building something that has to be bought, which is a more uncomfortable place to be as an entrepreneur. You want to build the company for long-term success. Perhaps along the way the company will go IPO or decide be sold, not bought—this distinction is important.
Work hard and help others to do the same. “Lean in” seems to be the phrase of the day, but that’s actually timeless advice that has always held up for entrepreneurs – regardless of their genders. However, Sheryl Sandberg’s book has some great takeaways:
1. Make everyone feel comfortable in their work environment so they can contribute to their maximum potential. It’s also important for people who want more global company responsibilities to position themselves in that way and be willing to take risks. This means staying open to challenges, and perhaps not always being able to succeed.
2. Have the confidence to defend your own view.
3. Be more sensitive about reading the subtext, and address issues that make people more comfortable in their environment. Employees who feel like the company cares about them are more open to taking risks.
4. Sandberg talks about sitting at the table, but as the founder, you should choose not to sit at the table for a particular meeting. Interject when needed so the team knows it’s supported. They will then decide if a conclusion isn’t reached. It doesn’t need to be driven by the CEO. Part of leadership is encouraging others to take the lead, and giving them the confidence they need to fight above their weight class and win.
Maintain your humility. The beauty of serial entrepreneurship is that you can learn from your first efforts and only make “new mistakes.” As a leader, I once avoided saying, “I don’t know.” Now, I see that ability as a real asset – to be able to say, “I don’t know, but I can find out before we need to know” or “I don’t know, but these smart people over here whom we’ve hired to help build this company will know.” I don’t have to be the smartest person in the room or convince others that I am, and I don’t hire people who feel the need to be either. We’re all learning from each other, and that’s essential to our collective success.
As an entrepreneur and an engineer, I’ve spent my career designing technology solutions that take something that has been difficult for the customer and transform it into something that feels easy. Unfortunately, there is no such fix for the complex task of imagining, founding and growing a successful company. It takes the common sense, hard work and humility of the co-founders to build a market-leading business with a happy culture and happy customers.
Paula Long is the CEO and co-founder of DataGravity. She previously co-founded storage provider EqualLogic, which was acquired by Dell for $1.4 billion in 2008. Long remained at Dell as vice president of storage, focused on the EqualLogic product line until January of 2010.