Saturday, October 26, 2019

Colorado Startup Life: Week 58

October 12 to 19, was a pretty typical week. I feel like we are hitting our groove. People are up to speed and contributing. We're working full blast on the design for our new facility, and it's almost done, the design at least. I'm actually quite happy, this is the most detailed facility design I've ever seen in CAD.

The biggest risk at the moment, in my mind, is validation of our business model. There is a large established company that does what we do, and many companies do what we do internally, but no one does quite exactly what we do. Coming from a large profitable company with a known customer base I worry sometimes that we don't have a customer base. That leads into my next point.

I'm very fortunate. I'm fortunate to have been born in the 1980s and not the 1880s. My electric bill is regularly something like $20 a month. One minute of light in my apartment is so inexpensive I just don't think about it. I don't have to find an oil lamp, find a lighter, make sure the lamp is full, and light it so that I can read after dark. I think light is a proxy for wealth. Being able to have light where I want it when I want it is a luxury that did not exist even 100 years ago, or in all prior humanity. I recently passed an arbitrary financial milestone that by my calculations meant if I quit working today I would have the money to buy food, have a cell phone, and health insurance the rest of my life. Unfortunately, I would really like to live in a a house or apartment and I definitely don't have enough to cover rent or a mortgage, or car expenses, indefinitely. Still, the realization that, if managed well, I will never go hungry is pretty crazy to me.

It's easy for us at every stage of wealth to look up to the next stage and lust after what those more financially fortunate people have. But how often do we look back at where we used to be? Billionaires are starting to really talk about inequality. On a day to day basis they might not have thought about how their standard of living and political power increased so much from when they were an average college student, until the difference between them and us is so large. On a much smaller scale I tell me parents and grand parents they don't need to leave me any inheritance. I don't need it. Spend your money.

The last two paragraphs were really just a long way of saying, I'm totally along for the ride in this startup adventure. If we fail I'm in a better position than many. Probably the two biggest lessons I've learned in the past year are first, sales solves a lot of problems and answers a lot of questions. If you have sales, you have a business. If you don't have sales, you don't really have a business, more of a research project. In other words, while I am an engineer my personal pendulum has swung to the sales side and I would love to sell something that doesn't exist and then spend four years making it exist. (The normal engineer thing is work on a product in your basement for years and then unveil it and wonder why people aren't buying this super cool product.) Secondly, management matters. It makes a huge difference. I thought I had a broad array of managers at my previous large established corporation. As I have learned over the past year, both in person at our company, and vicariously through stories my new coworkers have told of famous managers at other companies, management matters. Now, I'm not saying we need strong authoritarian leaders, I'm still confident that in many circumstances flat hierarchies work, but even in a flat organization there is management of a program.  If a program is not managed, if decisions are not made (which of course is a decision) the program will not progress smoothly.

To be blunt, what I have learned vicariously is that at one company the CEO is the ultimate decision maker and sets the direction. The company delivers, not always on schedule. There is strong clarity about what the goal is, but this CEO often fires people for a single mistake, and often that mistake is more a result of conflicting information than a person's failure to deliver. So there is a culture where people work five years to vest stock and then quit. At a second company the CEO seems to want someone to tell him what the goal is. So they work on this and work on that, interesting projects, but haven't really delivered much for all of the money they have spent. A nice guy, but without a super strong direction. At a third company the CEO is a go getter, but he may very well be willing to burn bridges in an effort to get subset X done, at the expense of the overall program. Entering the startup world has been interesting. I think we have a good management team and good leaders, but it is clear from the rumor mill that not all young companies in our industry are as fortunate.

In short, it's important to think not just about what you are going to deliver, but how you are going to deliver it. What is the balance of culture that gets you where you want to go. It's good to forgive people for mistakes, but at some point you have a draw a line and part ways. It's good to have a strong sense of direction, but it's good to take feedback and pivot too.

Two runs for 6.6 miles, and then Saturday I led the first pitch of the Bastile Crack! Whew it's a fun one!

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