For the past twenty years I have played various executive leadership roles at five different early-stage companies – one that never really got off the ground, two that established themselves as market leaders and were acquired by larger companies and one that went public and after seven years was sold to IBM. My present company, PolicyStat, has emerged from the startup phase very successfully, and its story is still being written. Each company has provided tremendous opportunities for learning, and through it all has taught me that there are three very important rules when it comes to building a great company: deliver customer value, appreciate the contributions of everyone involved and be open to change.
Deliver Customer Value
Great companies, particularly those selling a business-to-business solution, are built around delivering customer value. Often early-stage companies are founded because of a brilliant product idea, but even the greatest product ideas do not necessarily yield great companies unless they deliver business value to the customer. Successful product evolution beyond the initial feature set should always follow a path that leads to customer-perceived value rather than technological sophistication or ease of implementation. The best choice, whether product or service-related, is the one grounded in a basic understanding of the business value being delivered and drives the customer’s perceived business value highest.
Further, early-stage companies become great companies because of the contributions of everyone involved. It is not unusual to have an iconic figure that either leads a company or personifies the company’s culture, but that individual is not the company. Very little could be accomplished without the contributions of each individual team member, and unlike in larger companies, it is very difficult for an underperforming team member’s performance to go unnoticed. Keeping team members focused on their roles is only part of the answer; the real key is to continually show team members respect and express appreciation.
Probably the biggest lesson I have learned in building early-stage companies into great ones is the need to embrace change; to let go of established models and accept new ideas, new approaches, new perspectives. Over the years I have watched time and again as people who join early-stage companies from older, established ones try to reestablish the ways of their former employers but fail because the old approach didn’t fit the new situation. Forcing old ways on new teams can break down team unity, and ignoring new market conditions will almost guarantee a lesser result.
Early-stage companies are the essence of capitalism – this is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to creating new wealth and new jobs. Success for any new venture is never a given, but by following these simple rules, your company can be on the road to success. Good luck.