Cracking the Code on Startup Success

In a series of recently published interviews in Inc. Magazine, author John Bradberry offers interesting insights about the balance entrepreneurs must exhibit between passion and business reality. Below are excerpts from those interviews:

Must one compromise excitement in order to avoid the passion trap?

I think you can get the best of both worlds. What I’m really trying to combat is this sense that it’s an either/or: that passion and reason, or passion and logic, are opposites. Some people would even say passion and planning are opposites, because if you really plan something forward, it entails thinking about elements of reality that are going to bring you down. But if you think of a start-up as an aircraft, passion is the fuel and the engine. It creates velocity. But logic and reason are the engineering and the steering mechanism; you need both, and you’re not going anywhere exciting without both. What I explore a lot through the book is how can you get both? How can you make the most of your enthusiasm while not being blinded by it, and putting the right fundamentals in place?

There’s a phrase I use in the book called “earned optimism,” and that’s really the state that I’m after when I’m trying to get a business off the ground, or advising a business. It’s that kind of optimism you get after you’ve really thought through what can go well, what could go wrong, and what our contingencies are, should our plan not unfold as positively as we’ve hoped. It’s staring down the monsters under the bed and knowing that you can withstand that. You’ve planned for enough financial cushion, and you’ve built your financial projections in a way which will allow you to go more slowly, if necessary.

One of the most violated rules of the start-up process is that things take a lot longer than founders hope, and they usually cost a lot more. That idea of having earned optimism is feeling like you can sleep better at night, precisely because you’ve been willing to work at your idea, warts and all, and you’re able to embrace the naysayers instead of ignoring them.

Many founders assume the competition is not very strong or that there’s no competition. But I’ve never seen an idea or start-up where there wasn’t pretty strong competition. There are a few notable examples where you’re absolutely the first in your space, but if I had a nickel for every founding team I’ve met with where I start raising questions about the competition and they get visibly agitated. It’s like global warming: I don’t have a necessary political stance on global warming, but if it affects me, I want to know about it. It’s treated as data: the more data the better.

Your book talks about this idea of “founder readiness.” How can you prepare for being a founder?
There is plenty to do. I was at this conference for two days in Atlanta, and there was a panelist talking about how you can’t teach entrepreneurship; people are born, or not, as entrepreneurs. I take issue with that. I have studied people who are successful, and I think there is a certain hardwired set of qualities that prepare people for entrepreneurship, but it’s much more than that. It’s about what will prepare you for what it takes to get a business off the ground. It includes who you are, why you’re doing it, your experience, your expertise and knowledge—there’s a whole set of factors. That stuff makes a difference for most businesses.

There’s a fairly popular book from [ blogger] Scott Gerber, called Never Get A Real Job, and the idea is, “don’t ever work for somebody else.” The minute you get out of school, do a start-up. That will work in some cases, but the data shows that twice as many successful start-ups and tech start-ups are founded by people in their 50s, rather than in their 20s, and there’s a reason for that. Going down some career path, learning an industry and learning a discipline, and doing it on somebody else’s nickel—working for someone else—can be really valuable in terms of preparing. I think there’s certain disciplines or functions that are more useful than others, and an industry focus is helpful. If you’ve been involved in a particular industry, you recognize the patterns, and that’s the industry you found your start-up in. You’re going to be better than someone else that’s coming from a different market.

Sales and marketing experience is incredibly helpful. The process of having to go out and understand customers and clients is something that not every founder has, and it’s an advantage if you do have it. It’s hard to learn management from a book, so if you want to build a business someday, it makes sense to go into a job working for somebody else for a while where you actually manage a team. And you can learn whether or not you’re cut out for managing a team—it’s okay not to be cut out for it, just make sure you’re in a role where you don’t have to do that, and somebody else does.

What do you want readers to take away from your book?
Stay flexible. Don’t confuse passion and preparation, and understand that how you feel emotionally about your business is not necessarily the best indicator of your odds of success. Do what you need to do to increase your odds of success from a logical standpoint, and I’m not knocking feeling good, just don’t use that as the barometer or metric for progress.

Almost every robust, healthy business looks different than the founder first envisioned. Very different. There’s some examples of that in the book where someone starts out thinking they’re going to start a restaurant—Stacy’s Pita Chips is a great example. They started out with the intention of starting a health food restaurant, and had a lunch cart business on Boston’s streets because they didn’t have enough money to rent space for a restaurant. Along the way, they started serving these leftover pita bread chips to the people waiting in line for sandwiches, because they didn’t want people in line to abandon the line. One thing led to another and people went crazy for those pita chips, and the restaurant started selling the pita chips in groceries. Then, one thing led to another thing and they abandoned their restaurant plan, got fully into the consumer food business, and ended up selling to Frito Lay a few years later for $50 or $60 million. That was all because they were willing to pay attention to what the market was telling them.

This is replicated so often in success stories that I’ve studied. Your first idea is a starting point, so treat it as an experiment. That’s what I mean by being flexible. You can be committed and determined, and at the same time, be ready to move on a dime if you get data that tells you the path you’re on isn’t going to work.

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