August 21, 2020 · work

7 things I've learned running a company

August is a month of births for me.

My youngest, Nora, turned 2 on August 16.

My "middle" child, Lillian, turns 4 on August 31st.

And my "oldest" child, Standard Co, turned 7 on August 15th. In honor of young SC's 7th birthday, I've compiled a list of 7 things I've learned in the past 7 years.

1. There are no shortcuts

I think this is probably the hardest lesson to learn. Maybe you think sales can be juiced with a channel partner. Or development of an MVP can be expedited with an offshore team. Both might be true (especially later down the line). But they’re probably not (especially during the startup phase). The answer to building your own business is do the hard work. Do the sales. Do the building. Do the construction. Sweep the halls yourself, do the cold calling, knock on all of the doors. For every business where things came easy there are a million that had to wade through the swamp to get to the other side.

2. Plan for the worst, hope for the best

Who among us thought there would be a global pandemic that would bring everything to a screeching halt? Not me, that’s for damn sure. But having lived / worked through the first Dotcom bust in 2000, 9/11 in 2001, the Great Recession in 2008 / 2009, and now this, I have learned one very critical lesson. Plan for some bad shit to happen. Or, another way of saying this is, hoard as much cash as you can. Because rainy ass days like this will challenge you in ways you hadn’t anticipated.

(Note: this does not mean discard optimism. Every good entrepreneur I know is relentlessly optimistic about how things will go. And every great entrepreneur does that AND has a backup plan for when shit gets real)

3. Raising money should be the last thing on your mind

Startup media has put a premium on companies that raise money. This sends a distorted signal to would be founders; raising money is more important and of higher value than building revenue. As someone who’s done both (raised money and bootstrapped) I can tell you this unwavering truth: building a product, snagging customers, and becoming profitable gives you optionality that is difficult to put a price tag on. Grind out the first few years figuring out what sells, who your customer is, and what they’re willing to pay for. Grow your company and team and only *then* start to think about raising money. What you may find is you don’t need to raise

Here's a picture of me at a pitch competition. There is literally nothing more miserable for me than these things. 

4. Only build things customers will pay for

I *love* to build stuff. Especially cool stuff that no one in their right mind will pay for (helloooooo Database of Nachos). So when we started building out our data platform at Standard Co, it pained me when someone would ask us for something that I thought was cool and I responded with  “ok great, it’ll cost this much”. If they said no, we wouldn’t build it (or if we did we did it on our timetable).

People won’t (always) pay for what they want. But they will (frequently) pay for what they need.

5. What’s more important to you: being a founder or being an entrepreneur

I have no idea if this is a controversial opinion or not but I see a slight distinction between the terms “founder” and “entrepreneur”. They are not mutually exclusive but they do have important differences in my mind:

Founder: someone obsessed with the problem. I used to believe strongly in “founder market fit”.  That is, the founder has to come into the startup with some kind of unique perspective on the problem. When we started We&Co (the company we did before Standard Co), my unique perspective was that I bartended my way through college and that my family is (was) mostly restaurant folk. I had an intense interest in the problems facing restaurants everyday. I had founder market fit. But what I ended up realizing is I had an obsession with making data more actionable. Useful. Available. And I parlayed that obsession into Standard Co, a company focused on using data to transform lives in global health. I’m very interested in the business of what we do, but if I'm honest, I'm more interested in the problems we solve.

Entrepreneur: on the other side of the coin you have entrepreneurs. They’re interested in the underlying problem but more than that, they’re interested in running a business. Maybe it’s a dev shop. Or a restaurant. Or a dry cleaner. Whatever. But the problem is more of an opportunity to them than a passion.

I raise this point because some problems take YEARS to reach scale (ahem, running a global health company). While other businesses can reach profitability fairly quickly and maintain an even course. I discovered over the last 7 years that I’m a founder. I’m dedicated to this problem and can’t let go.

6. Focus on hiring great people, not great skills

Ok I’ll be honest, this is something that’s been baked into my DNA since I made my very first hire almost 15 years ago. I’m a big fan of underdogs. In hiring people that normally would get passed over b/c they’re lacking some of the credentials that I find overvalued (skillet, college degrees). Investing in upskilling people has two very tangible side effects: 1)loyalty 2) it’s the right f’ing thing to do.

Our job as founders is to not only build great and useful things but to help bring the next class of entrepreneurs / creators / crafters into the game.

I'm grateful for every oddball we've hired over the years.

7. Find a partner who will support you

This is a truly under appreciated. But I’d take it one step further: spouses with good jobs and/or unwavering support are the unsung heroes of the startup world. My wife Megan is a great example. It’s great that she has a good job and good benefits but well before we ever got married, her support, her belief in me meant more than any big customer, contract, feature, or investor we ever talked to. We definitely did things where she was like “ohhhh dude what are you doing” but she always said “I believe in you. And I believe in the team” and damn if that didn’t give me the fuel (then and now) to keep doing this crazy endurance life.

With much love and gratitude to Jonathan and Jared, my two partners, close friends, sometimes foes, but always amazing business partners!