How to define, embrace and lever your startup DNA

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As part of our ongoing series examining the ecosystem necessary to bring technology to market, we asked serial entrepreneur Jason Flick to share some of his insights on getting technology to market. This is the second of his commentaries and we welcome your feedback.

By Jason Flick

As I mentioned in my last post, startups don’t have a common culture. This is a myth that’s been created, perhaps intentionally, by the 95 percent of people who’ve never worked for a startup.

Who would want to search out and work for a company that can’t pay much, if anything, in salaries, expects you to work 12-hour days and in the end, has a 50 percent chance of failure? Over the past 21 years I have created four startups, been employed by five others, and mentored and worked with nearly 100. None of them has fit this mould, or any other.

Startups have DNA, just like people. It may not surprise you to hear that a startup’s DNA is in part a mixture of its leaders’ DNA. If you think you merely have “startup culture,” then you’re not driving your business, it’s driving you.

What I will cover here is a process to determine, embrace and lever your DNA. This process is really a distillation of what bigger companies do, except startups can do it without the red tape, months of meetings to bring everyone on board, etc. When I run this exercise in my companies, employees attest that it’s “motivating,” “fun” and “just what we needed.”

Keeping your lean mean startup machine on track

I give much credit for my current success to TEC Canada, a group that I have been a member of for five years. It’s a big part of why I’ve staved off so many opportunities for failure. This process is something other CEOs in this group, our chair and I have worked with and evolved. We feel it’s just the right mixture of vision, goals and tactical actions.

We know you’re very busy, but you need to take time with your key staff – all your staff, if you can – and spend a day on the business rather than in the business. Preferably take everyone off-site; for one of my companies I swapped our services for catering and a meeting room at a nice local ski resort. In my experience, this will be the best thing you’ve ever done for your company. The steps are quite simple, and you can grab the template I use here.

Two quotes that help frame the mind set for your staff:

Roy Rogers said, “I try to avoid lengthy business plans – too much detail clouds simple concepts.” And with credit to architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, “Less is more.”

Ask everyone to do a little homework. Each person attending needs to think about the business and put down one to three points under each of the following headings: Strength, Weakness, Opportunity and Threat. Some of you will know of this as SWOT and it forms the basis for the entire day, so take this part seriously. Read up a little; SWOT Wikipedia will help you frame things if you need a refresher. Have someone on your team collect all of these points and put them on sticky notes for the big day.

Here is how that day looks:

1) Who you are now. Here you discuss your company SWOT. Choose someone from the team to facilitate the discussion of each letter and display the results visually. The dialog here is as useful as the end result, so don’t rush it. This will take a fair bit of the morning. The template at the link above includes a sample agenda. Narrow it down to three or four ideas per letter; this is where the sticky notes come in handy.

2) The future. Discuss the beliefs and the economic trends you think are driving your business. For example, at YOU i Labs we believe touch screens will proliferate and be the preferred method of input. If you can’t garner any of these, jump to a coffee break, submit your resignation and run! Startups need passion to succeed through the dark days, and this is that stuff. Expect and drive some good heated debate here.

3) Vision. Look at where you want to be in three or five years. You envision what success looks like — which, by the way, is one of the quickest ways to measure the success of a startup. If they don’t have a vision, failure is imminent. And if your team doesn’t know and agree on what the end game looks like, they are likely running in circles. This is also one of the most motivating pieces of the process. Brian Scudamore, CEO of GOT JUNK, started with one truck and in 2009 was the fastest growing company in North America, with offices around the world. With his team, he painted a clear picture of what success means. It included appearing on Oprah and in what year that would happen. They achieved their goals and he credits the picture they collectively painted as the primary reason why.

4) 10 key strategic imperatives. Having invested the time going through the process above, you are now going to be surprised how the imperatives almost jump out at you. For Flick Software, some of ours were to grow our channel partnerships and hire someone to run them, establish revenue growth targets, and refocus on our target market. At this point, it’s good to go back to the SWOT and make sure each of the three items has an imperative that levers it.

5) This year’s execution priorities. Things start to get tactical here, and the team starts appreciating the link between steps one and five and what they are doing day-to-day in the office. Again, you will find these coming out fast and furious. This could (and should) involve some social media items as well, social media being a great level playing field for startups. For example, commit to 10 new blog posts and five videos, two customers in trials for the new product, new office space, and so on.

6) Goals for the next 90 days. Here the team starts to see why they need to, and want to, rush back to the office and get to work. This is also the piece that’s the easiest and the one I hear the most positive feedback about. In some cases, it’s just your one-year items divided by four; in other cases, it’s a more refined next step for the one-year goals.

Of course you need to compile this in a one or two pager (I have provided a format for you) and you should post the 90-day priorities up on a big whiteboard in the office. Maybe even have a bell you can ring as you accomplish them. Then come back to the one-year goals in 90 days, grab another list and repeat the entire exercise every 12 months.

As a leader in the organization that has completed this process, you can assure yourself that you now have a firm grip on the steering wheel of your high-performance startup and your odds of success have doubled.

Get out there and create some amazing companies!

Jason Flick is co-Founder and President of YOU i Labs and President and CEO of Flick Software, a successful serial entrepreneur and product visionary. Jason has founded half a dozen companies in the past 18 years and is advisor and executive to nearly a dozen software companies. He is passionate about the disruption mobility has created and how businesses can lever it.


  • John Meharg

    May 04, 2011 8:21 pm

    Great Startup Support Article Jason,

    I had the fortunate opportunity to sit in on a high level business investment meeting between Jason and a very sophisticated technology investor named J.S. Cournoyer from Real Ventures while attending an investor networking event at Mercury Grove Headquarters a few months back.

    It was highly educational for me to see Jason’s high level pitch to this investor who really understood Jason’s business, industry and mobile device technologies. You rarely get an investor who knows the technology side of the market as well as the financials. And it’s even more rare to have an entrepreneur with Jason’s experience successfully raising angel and venture funding for startup and mid growth companies.

    As I see it, fundraising is the greatest obstacle to startup success after team building. It would be great to see Jason share his experience and tips in this area of business development and success.

    John Meharg

  • Jason Flick

    May 06, 2011 12:44 pm

    Thank you for the kind words John. I remember that pitch, it was with Jean Sebastion Cournoyer from real ventures( at the very cool networkhippo offices( Very smart guy, great entrepreneur advocate and he has a new and innovative investment model for new and early stage companies. However, it did not fit our needs and that has really summed up many of my pitches. Over the last 3 years of seeking capital it has been a big education for me on how all these angels, super angel, seed funds, A round etc all work, or in some cases don’t work. Like most things the guy who failed the most at something learned the most, so I must have some useful tidbits for other entrepreneurs who have the determination to go this route. I found a very unqiue route which took longer than I’d like but in the end is going to be a far better result for my company.

    Keep an eye out, I’ve added this to my todo and I’m sure the Francis-Moran blog folks will permit me the indulgents.

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