Reflections on Raising a Baby (Business)
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because starting a business isn’t easy, and it doesn’t get any easier to run it.
By Sean Braswell
Launching a startup is a lot like having a baby. The exhaustion. The enormous investment up front. The stress, and worrying about the future. The need to constantly compare your creation’s progress to shifting views of what “normal” is. The list goes on, though it breaks down a little when you start to count how many men parent versus start up. But … that’s another story.
This story is about our own precious little bundle of online joy, who turns 2 today, and what it has taught us about starting and running a business. But rather than throw a party or pull out our phone and bore you with the hundreds of photos we have of little OZY’s first day or its first 1 million monthly uniques (“Look, here it is learning how to write a catchy headline … ahh, so clickable”), we decided instead to share some of the insights we’ve learned from all of the other company parents, entrepreneurs and investors we have been fortunate to meet on the playground over the past two years. We worked our way through the annals of OZY interview history — and through the annals of our founders’ minds — to compile assorted wisdom on starting up.
Pursue Your Obsessions. Then Spread Them.
Just down the street from OZY lies another crazy little company named Quixey, a 5-year-old tech startup that occupies the old office of $16 billion WhatsApp in sunny downtown Mountain View, California. Tomer Kagan, the company’s CEO and co-founder, calls Quixey’s brainchild “deep search” — it’s a mobile search app that allows users to search content within and across apps the way a conventional engine searches websites. Which has the likes of Google and Facebook now nipping at Quixey’s heels — and Kagan’s vision.
OZY, like Quixey, was born from one man’s obsession with an opportunity that others had missed or dismissed, and one — in our case — spawned by that great patron saint of startups: boredom. We were bored — bored of what the other corners of the media landscape looked like. But boredom isn’t always enough to convince others of the merits of your obsession, as we found from our years of interviewing up-and-coming business leaders. That’s true whether you’re trying to fundraise for a media startup amid a massive decline in print media or to persuade investors that developing e-commerce platforms across Africa is a good idea. When Chris Folayan, the founder and CEO of Mall for Africa, first pitched his own obsession, he had to play defense on everything from shipping logistics to Nigerian Prince e-mail scams. “You say Nigeria and everybody cringes,” Folayan told OZY when we first caught up with him 15 months ago. “It’s a hard, hard sell.”
And it’s a sales job that’s not for everyone. Jerry Shen, a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur who founded a fantasy football app that was sold to Yahoo, entertains no illusions about the work of founding a company. “It’s not fun, it’s not glamorous,” he shared with us last year, likening it to war or a bad action movie. “It’s running in quicksand, not making any progress, punctuated by moments of sheer terror.” Facing such terror and taking such risks might well be something that some are more genetically disposed to than others, but having that confidence can pay off. Once upon a time, another Mountain View startup, as Google’s Chief Legal Officer (and OZY investor), David Drummond shared with us, did just that: Google committed itself to paying out more money through its innovative AdSense program than it actually had in the bank at the time, a risk that could have buried the young company if it had backfired. (Imagine a world of “Lycosing” or “Ask Jeeves-ing.”)
Hire Smartly. Rinse and Repeat.
Getting hiring right is a big challenge for all companies, especially young ones making critical initial staffing decisions. According to the Harvard Business Review, up to 80 percent of employee turnover can be attributed to bad hiring decisions. “Sometimes founders don’t know what they really want, or they think they know, but it isn’t really what they need,” Jana Rich, one of Silicon Valley’s top recruiters, told OZY last year (Rich’s clients include Twitter, Uber and Dropbox, among many others).
Indeed, part of Google’s early success, Drummond told us, was the discipline the company maintained around its hiring. For the first seven years, the executive team met every week to review every single candidate, whether that was Sheryl Sandberg or a new engineer. Inspired in part by places like Google and the management consulting firm McKinsey (our CEO’s former stomping ground), we are obsessive about hiring — as any of our team members can tell you. It wasn’t just interviews and résumés: We positively date our candidates. That still leaves the challenge of carrying the whole thing through to the rest of the company, beyond the early stages; and that may mean coping with some inevitable HR troubles — like burnout, turnover and churn. Which is why the companies that really endure, from McKinsey to Google, figure out how to cope with, and even embrace, the fact that some of its best leave the nest.
Working Hard Is Fine, but Working Smart Is Better
“Running a startup is like eating glass,” Facebook’s first president, Sean Parker, once said. “You just start to like the taste of your own blood.” For serial entrepreneurs like Tomer Kagan, perhaps that taste, like the frequent late nights and red-eye flights, is something you get used to. But for those new to a startup, it can be somewhat daunting at first, even if you’re coming from, say, the White House. “I often feel that being an entrepreneur is a fancy way of saying you are a doer,” as another serial entrepreneur, Wences Casares of Argentina, told us in our first year; Casares has sold multiple companies for a combined total of more than $1 billion. “If the idea of being broke, divorced, depressed gives you pause — then don’t do it.” Not everyone puts it in such stark terms; some use quite the opposite. In inveighing against Silicon Valley’s “pervasive culture of long hours,” Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube, recently told OZY, “Working more is no substitute for working hard and working smart.”
And, in addition to not stigmatizing vacation, young companies can help their employees work more smartly in a variety of ways, from enlisting improved work-flow tools (let us sing the praises of Slack) to taking a leading role in inspiring proactivity to paying for employee gym memberships (hint, hint, OZY leaders). Or maybe just abolishing offices altogether (food for thought at least?). No doubt there will be more to learn in the next year (and hopefully beyond) as our toddler company’s motor skills develop further and its communication skills grow stronger.
Now, are you sure you don’t want to see those photos? We’ve got them on our phone … it’s no trouble, it’s right here.…