Startup 101: Getting through the tough times
"What comes first - Success or Confidence?"
Marty Schottenheimer, the coach of the Washington Redskins back in 2001, started the season 0-5. When trying to explain what was happening with the team, he asked the rhetorical question above to reporters grilling him.
Back in June of 2000 my partners and I had finally pulled it off: we got an initial round of angel funding that would allow us to make WebSurveyor a real business. Now we could start to hire employees, get some office space and start paying ourselves! It was a heady time - we were running at full speed, buying used furniture, setting up a spacious 1,000 sf office space that would ultimately house 14 people (yeah, it was really tight in there), buying a cheapo phone system, etc. By the end of August we were in our new customized office space, had a handful of employees and were watching our sales take off!
Reality started to hit us two months later. Sure, our sales were growing at a decent pace, just not nearly as quickly as we needed to so that we could at least break even. The market had just tanked, the Dot Bomb explosion was going off everywhere and we needed to make payroll. I'll never forget that night in late October of 2000. My partners Tom Lueker and Bruce Mancinelli were at the office with me at about 10pm on a Tuesday night, trying to figure out how we could possibly make payroll the following week. Up to that point in time we were so consumed with getting our facilities up and running and our new people on board I hadn't even thought about how tight we were running our ship. That night the reality of our situation hit me like a ton of bricks. It's now over 7 years later and I can still remember that feeling, like a heavy weight crushing down on me.
Before we took on the funding I had been doing contract development work. Well, all of the contracts had dried up just as I put myself on the payroll of WebSurveyor so for me there was no turning back. We simply had to figure out a way to make this work.
Somehow we managed to get just enough sales in the door and we were able to make payroll that month. We pushed off bills until the last possible moment and, when it seemed that it was the darkest time for our little company Bruce managed to get us a bridge loan from Beacon Ventures. It literally came at the last possible hour.
There would be other challenging times ahead for about a year after that. We rode a constant roller coaster that would bring us fantastic highs and depressing lows, though I think that night in October was a seminal moment because it was so painful to go through, yet somehow we managed to get through it. With that small success came a small dose of confidence.
I believe that success comes from two primary things: doing something you love to do and the liberal application of focused work. When I was building up WebSurveyor my passion was building software that people really enjoyed using. If it made them productive and happy and that feedback reached me it was like a powerful narcotic - I loved that feeling.
I also loved the feeling of running my own company. I had been yanked around by the companies I had worked for in the past far too much to turn the control of my career over to someone else again. That was also a huge driver for me personally.
I believe that was the key to getting through the tough times. I always knew that the product we were building was the best on the market. All we needed to do was stick with it long enough to get that momentum. I'm just grateful that we didn't give up when it looked tough - we just kept our focus and had a fundamental belief that we were doing the right thing.
If you have entertained the thought of starting your own business it must be by doing something you really love. I have met several would be entrepreneurs that fantasize an IPO or sale and believe that is the fuel that will drive them. You can see it when they talk about their business plans and see the sparkle in their eyes when they describe the equity event - they are far more excited about that than anything else. I believe that kind of thinking leads to compromised ethics and poor attitudes towards customers and employees.
If you do something you are genuinely passionate about it will build the confidence you need to be successful. In my view passion and commitment lead to confidence, which then leads to success.
There's your answer Marty!