A little over 7 years ago I took the plunge and decided to join a Seattle startup with an obscure name; Qumulo. Little did I know that this experience would unleash the most rewarding and enriching journey of my career thus far. Since then, I have joined another two startups spanning databases — Dremio — and most recently a deep learning startup in the healthcare space Kheiron Medical. During this time I ran engineering at all 3. I also ran Customer Success and Biz Ops functions.
Before I dive into my learnings, I’d like to define what I mean by a “startup”. The term is often used interchangeably to describe scrappy garage-based ventures, new products within large companies, mobile apps and so forth. In my opinion, a startup represents a stage of a company’s evolution. Companies typically go through various stages starting with the startup phase, progressing to the growth and on to the maturity stage. Each stage can also lead to terminal obsolescence. A company can die at the startup stage as well as the maturity stage, such is the cycle of innovation.
The startup phase of a company is one during which the company is trying to validate whether or not its ideas can be translated into products with an identified market fit — the legendary product market fit (PMF). During this phase the company is concerned with the validation of a major hypothesis: Do we have a product or products that can power a viable business. Those companies that survive past this stage enter the growth stage which is mostly concerned with scaling and rapidly growing the business. During the maturity stage, the company is occupied with continuing to innovate beyond its initial success and proving that it is able to survive for the very long term.
The startup stage can best be characterized as frenetic. It is a stage that is both exhilarating, exhausting, euphoric and frustrating. During that stage, the company is racing towards validating its product market-fit, trying to discover its future demand curve before it runs out of money. A company will only exit this stage once it has successfully attained PMF. I’ll cover what that actually means and how to know when you’ve reached this milestone in a future post.
Beyond this frenzy of energy, the company is also rapidly trying to build the scaffolding that can support it beyond this phase. It is not atypical for companies to not have any formal functional organizations beyond product and engineering at this stage. Some might have nascent marketing and sales teams, but more often those roles are filled in by the founders and product managers. As an individual at a company during this stage you might have to step into roles that you have absolutely no prior knowledge or experience of.
With that out of the way, my key learnings are summarized below.
First, is to sell your product as soon as possible. Nothing says validation more than selling your product. Customer advisory boards, product research, usability studies and the likes are all wonderful tools to help with product discovery. However, they don’t meet the high bar of customers willing to exchange their money for your products. Selling puts skin in the game on both sides — the company and the customer. Selling will also push the company to start investing in the other areas beyond product development. Once you have the very few customers the company will have to start thinking of support, regular release cycles, accounting, sales compensation and so on. Selling propels the company forward. It is also a key pre-requisite for PMF.
The second learning is a bit of a combo lesson, but all parts are interconnected. You have to be comfortable with making decisions with imperfect data, to rely on post ante data to validate those and to disagree and commit. I call this an experimental mindset.
Third, you have to learn how to say no otherwise you will be quickly overwhelmed.
“Startups don’t starve, they drown” Shawn Carolan
There are two factors at play here. The first is the natural tendency to say yes during the startup phase. The most common “yes” at that stage tends to be around product decisions, particularly those to try and win early customers. The second factor is resources, or lack of, especially engineering resources. You will have to balance the tendency to say yes by default with available resources. This is hard and will require discipline, the courage to say no — and commit to it — along with a decision making process that aligns resources with the most critical experiments to undertake.
Lessons two and three are part of what I call the decision making operating system. Arguably the most critical and difficult system to get right. I’ll cover this topic in a lot more detail in future posts.
Third, is to use written narratives as the default. This is one Amazon’s principles that honestly feel is alone responsible for $100s of billions in market cap. I will leave it up to Jeff Bezos to describe why written narratives are far superior than any other form.
Jeff’s very good reasons aside, a written narrative introduces a time to pause both for the authors and consumers of this narrative. You’d be surprised how valuable that is; to stop and critically think about a problem. It is the natural complement for the need for speed, which is the de facto standard in a startup.
Fifth, you have to stretch. This in my opinion is the biggest lesson and motivation to join a startup. Startups will offer ample opportunities for anyone to jump in and solve problems that nobody else in the company has any prior experience with. I call that stretching. Keep in mind that in an early stage startup, everybody will be stretching. You think your CEO has prior experience in building a sales compensation plan? Likely not. I remember being asked very early on at Qumulo to go figure out how to support our customers. My only experience with support was calling 1–800 numbers and being incredibly frustrated. That task was both daunting and incredibly rewarding — I had a blank canvas to tackle this problem from first principles. The result is Qumulo’s Customer Success Organization, one of the company’s main competitive advantages and often touted as best in class.
Sixth is to be curious and use the startup phase as an amazing learning opportunity. Being in the middle of an early stage startup offers tremendous practical business lessons. If you are in engineering, try and understand what marketing does; how is their work related to yours? How is the price of your product set? How do you find your customers? If you are at an enterprise B2B company, try go on a sales call to see how your product is pitched and sold. A startup is a hands-on MBA degree.
Seventh is to take care of your physical and mental health. Startups are a lot of work, oftentimes work that you were never exposed to before (refer back to stretching). If you suffer from the Imposter Syndrome like I do, that might result in you feeling like you are constantly failing. I know all too well the implications of this having suffered a significant health setback that resulted in me having to take an extended break and leave Dremio. Don’t push yourself to that limit — it is not worth it.
Thanks for reading!
Originally published at https://karimfanous.substack.com.