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©2020 BY R. K. MAYER

  • R. K. Mayer

Scaling the Heights — 7 Conundrums of an Early Stage Startup


There is something fundamentally challenging about building a startup. I speak from very recent and ongoing experience. While it is an education on turbo boost, it can also be profoundly and suddenly restricting. Imagine driving full speed on the high way and then hitting a brick wall. Just an image of course. The startup scenario doesn't end in anything more dramatic than backing up and trying again and again and again. Here are some early stage startup conundrums to consider:

The romance is over. Keep the love alive

The idea that began as a tiny spark is now a full blown fire. It has taken you over. You have left your day job, your salary, your comfort zone. You have dreamed about making the idea into something real and now you are trying to do it. At this point: once you have turned your world upside down to embrace the vision. Now you need to tear the vision apart. You need to drop the romance and make the idea into something that is viable, feasible, realistic. There's nothing romantic about cold and clinical pragmatism. However, once your romantic notions are abandoned, what you cannot afford to lose is your love for the idea. Keep it growing. Nurture it. Never stop loving.

Stealth versus the Constant Desire to Purge

Startups in their beginning stages are paranoid, untrusting creatures. They lurk in the shadows. They yearn for mentors, supporters, feedback and funding, but are scared to come out of the shadows. Their fear that people on the outside are predatory scavengers waiting to steal their ideas, makes the wheels of progress go extremely slowly. The irony is, that while you walk around trying to generate just the right amount of attention, on the inside you are generally bursting to share. Early stages would love to blurt it out, sing it out, let it out, not just to advance their innovation. They want to share because they know that their idea has more than merit: it is brilliant and worthy. Who doesn't want to show off something that has value to add to the world? Which proud parent doesn't want to show off pictures of their newborn and say: "One day — mark our words — she will change the world."

Which Comes First the Customer or the MVP?

Getting down to a concrete issue, here is a conundrum — what comes first finding customers or building an MVP? The blanket isn't big enough to cover everyone. You may be advised (like we were) that without an MVP, no investor will so much as spit in your direction. Or, you may hear (as we have): what's an MVP worth if you don't have a customer who believes in you and your idea? But will a customer come on board without an MVP in place? And what MVP can be built without a customer in mind?

You need money to make money

Startups have their own f-word. Fundraising. When you reach the inevitable point in which you need to start fundraising because your bootstrap budget isn't going to stretch much further, you discover that many VCs, angels, funds, etc. expect to see an existing money trail. Or as they call it "traction". They may talk about it in different terms. They may ask how many paying customers you have, or what your projected revenues will be from the MVP. So, at the point where you are trying to raise money through investment, ironically you need to show that you have money.

Passion versus the Bottom Line

If a not too shabby benefit of your startup is some kind of social benefit, in addition to increasing your customer's bottom line, (in our case it is sustainability and a happy environment), then why is there always a need to play this down? "It is nice to hear that you are so passionate," we heard recently from a very senior member of a private fund. It was worded like a compliment, but it wasn't meant to be."Your passion is great", she said, "but check it in at the door. We are only interested in the bottom line." I understand the head versus heart paradigm, but passion brought us this far, and passion will carry us over the threshold. Startups requires head and heart. Stepping in to the unknown and experience. Passion and execution. Ying and yang. Like the old adage goes, "you don't have to be crazy to work here, but it helps."

Who's the Boss?

Well this is a doozie. We are two co-founders. We are also married. Who's the boss? When a startup is bootstrap and your home and your work is the same physical space and there is a complete blur between professional and personal, this raises many questions from the sublime to the ridiculous. Who takes the call with the accountant and who deals with the plumber? Who works on the branding and who prepares mashed potatoes for lunch. Does the same person pitch every time? Who makes the ultimate decisions? This situation is not for the fainthearted. But it is perfect for crazies like me and my co-founder/other half.

Circle of Peers

Most people have a short list of go-to contacts who help them on different matters. When you are an early stage startup this list isn't usually that helpful.

People who have never been in your situation don't know the answers.

People who were in your situation, but didn't make it, haven't much more than warnings and cautions to offer. One should listen, internalize and try not to let it stand in your way.

People who were in your situation and succeeded, represent the ultimate challenge: the sweet zone and the danger zone. If I ask, will they share their secrets or not? If I tell, will they steal my secrets or not? Startups in the early stages are not sure who their friends are anymore. Sometimes it is just easier to ask someone out of left field: a person who has no connection to your industry or innovation.

But, ultimately you will need to dig deeper, because you and your team are going to ultimately need to figure it out together.

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