Roots of a Startup

Michael (MJ) AllenMichael J. (MJ) Allen
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Feb 12
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Richard Branson, one of my more admired entrepreneurs, surprisingly never set out to be a businessman and instead followed his guiding-light as a teenager to launch a magazine startup that evolved into the Virgin empire we’re familiar with today.

Its a familiar story hearing of entrepreneurs who begun with similar beginnings. Those with a passionate vision in mind, a solution to a problem, or pursued the path of fulfilment vs. chasing the golden ladder and paycheque that many of use were bred to pursue.

Even my entrepreneurial DNA has led me down the path of the startup addiction, having founded a digital marketing agency, mentoring and coaching bootstrapped startups and fortune 500’s, to taking digital epiphanies from concept to market….with some kept warm on the back-burning similar to where Alibaba.com’s path to success.

Build a business, not a startup

Reflecting on over 15 years of digital business adventures (and ventures), and looking at the successes and ‘learning experiences’ from a variety of clients and brands, I found a few common threads that were all too apparent in the make or break of a new digital business startup. And this is what I’ve become familiar with as the roots of a startup.

With most things in our ecosystem, both in life and business, everything that grows or advances into something bigger and better, requires foundation.

It’s a bit cliche, but still one of those basic ingredients I’ve found most often neglected by startups and entrepreneurs, and repetitious reasons for why many startups fail.

Don’t just take my word, the influential ancient Chinese book the art of war, is a masterpiece on strategy that can be applied to help startups build a strong foundation to win those small and large milestones and battles through their startup journey.

The simplistic takeaway from this is that a foundation for your startup is comprises of the following roots, which will help you provide the support to drive your new startup venture forward. And when vision gets cloudy or roadblocks and failures occur, the foundation is your support to fall on to revisit.

For any startup, its a healthy habit to revisit the foundation on a monthly or quarterly term. Not to re-hash or over analyze, but more of a check-in to ensure your startup strategy and team is still aligned. Think about it…just as in touring the country in a car, you check your GPS or map from time to time to ensure you’re still on in the right direction you mapped out…and if not, ask yourself or your team “why”…and ask it repeatedly if you’re to uncover the root cause that caused your direction or path to become miss-aligned. Again – build a business…one that solves a need or purpose…not a startup.

The Roots

Often I found lacking in many startups is a compressive foundation of entrepreneurship. Many venture down their path with cultivating a new spin on something old (or new), or as in the case of many computer engineers and programmers I’ve met, simply building something for the sake of the challenge or diving-in with tunnel vision…if I build it, it will be cool and they will come.

The startup foundation that appears to separate success from failure; albeit I’ve seen some really great ideas sadly fail from lack of foundation to drive any solid execution, where these foundational roots can be summed up to…

  • Vision and concept

  • Product development and viability

  • Targeted exposure and revenue

  • Adoption and scale

  • Distribution channels, and partnerships

  • Synergy, structure and business design

I’ll get into each one of these foundation roots in separate posts, but for now it gives you a 30,000 foot view of the typical roots that prevail in many successful startups.

Unfortunately many bootstrapped startups dive immediately into building and launching their ideas into market (which isn’t always a bad thing), but tend to neglect the startup roots as an after-thought.

Lets not forget the same roots apply to intraprenuership within the corporate world. Somewhat different approaches and control over each root, but nevertheless they are influential in an organizations growth – ex. think Apple.com’s historical path.

There are no shortcuts to circumventing these roots…and yet why would you. But as the wicked cocktail of time, money and aspiration is drunk, those who venture down the startup path can learn and accelerate much quicker from the experience and validated learnings where many seasoned and successful entrepreneurs or advisors have already tried, failed, succeed and accomplished over the years.

To find advisors to help guide and steer you, just look around your local community for other success stories, network at key events or connect online through community portals that can help introduce you to advisors who want to give back and help…though sometimes at the cost of equity.

Consider the fast-track access to these validated learnings and experience through local or popular incubator programs. Incubator programs are designed to support and nurture the development of a startup through the functional roots described above, and can offer an array of support and services.

I’ve found the biggest perk is the exclusive access to a network of contacts most wouldn’t have an easy time accessing, such as face time with angels and VC’s, and those who have travelled and succeed down the beaten entrepreneurial path and won.

Those digital stars who get it, will invest in themselves for their startup through these incubator type programs. The whole point of joining is to access the services of the different startup ecosystems, and the knowledge to be applied. (Not to mention statistically the success of most startups is far greater from those who join these programs).

Not familiar with a startup ecosystem? A startup ecosystem is simply formed groups of people in their various stages of their business success, and various types of companies, all interacting as a system to help new startups.

Corporate world calls these as elite networks, consortiums, board directors, etc.

But in the startup world, consider these startup ecosystems via incubator programs or accelerator programs as a group where each focus on specific area of the business functions, and/or businesses at various stages in their development stages.

Water the Roots

When I refer to watering the roots, it simply implies taking risk.

The roots of a startup need investment of time and effort to grow. And to achieve this you need to take both small and larger risks.

I’m sure you’ve heard friends or peers pitch the next big idea, but only to fail to even start the journey down its path. Its either a lack of will-power, motivation or drive to take small steps to water the roots of their idea. Talk is cheap.

Watering the startup roots is the necessity to produce the failures, and the learnings from these failures to advance forward, pivot or even stop.

How else will you validate your product or idea, or know you’re targeting the right audience, or if you can monetize your concept, or continually pump time and money into something that will never be.

Watering the roots aims to tweak your startup towards the right direction, grow the business all while intelligently positioning your risk and exposure.

For example, take your startups product or concept. You’re bootstrapping with little to no investment, or maybe you were fortunate to obtain some seed capital for equity.

How you water startup roots of product development and viability will be viewed on how you can mitigate risk of financial investment and time to get your product into a viable product your audience is willing to part ways with their money in return for what you offer.

Do you spend months building the perfect product, thinking it will be a 90% perfect fit with your audience? Did you even talk with your intended audience and get their insights? But how can you if you’re spending 6 months to build your product?

Following this traditional failed startup path tends to lead to either a) folding up your business as you’re broke or cannot invest further time and money until you can get your audience to see the value in parting ways with their hard earned money, or b) you’ll seek further equity to buy you more time to validate the market fit.

In this scenario, watering the product development roots is where I advise the startup to engage in a product feedback loop to build only the basic acceptable product (BAP)….or popularized by the MVP (minimum viable product).

The BAP or MVP will help the startup quickly and efficiently build only the minimum requirements that the intended audience will find value and acceptance.

Then test this with various cross sections of your audience, and take objective views of the feedback and inputs.

This feedback will help become your guiding light on what do address next. Not that all feedback is good feedback, but the testing the BAP will provide you the crucial initial insights to either advance to the next round of development to move towards that market fit, or if a pivot is required.

A startup may realize their initial product idea or vision was blurred. But ongoing testing, learning and optimization will answer any doubts and questions.

And when a pivot is required (turning point), embrace it as many successful house-hold named startups are not where they are today without making a number of different pivots. Think Groupon, Angry Birds or Apple.

These pivots, or turning points, may be the product itself, or the target audience, or the business or monetization model or virtually any one of the roots described above.

A pivot of your product or vision will point you in a new direction towards the success market fit, while reducing time and money spent on something that was never meant to be.

And remember, the outcome of your BAP is to get as close to the “right fit” with your audience, where your market is willing to spend their time, money and evangelize your product or brand.

But for now I hope you find value in the sharing of my experience in the digital space and with startups. Where extreme uncertainty prevails in the startup world, take heart in the roots of a startup to help you launch or elevate your next digital business.

Be sure to share your experiences and tips with others and comment below. I’ll aim to respond and share back with others.


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