All problems are founder problems — 4 lessons from my 8-year startup
The highs, the lows, and the “Hell, I sure won’t be doing that again” lessons I’ve learned along the way.
It was April 1(st) 2014, and April Fool’s Day had arrived to inspire harmless fun and mild fear around the world.
Pranks weren’t the only thing happening, however.
On this day, I incorporated my company, Sugr Electronics Corp. The slogan was Share Sweet Sound, and I’d set the bar pretty high. Not just for myself but for the products I’d spent endless late nights finessing.
You might be expecting a success story here, but that’s only part of it.
In truth, Sugr almost died twice. It hasn’t been a smooth business marathon, with plenty of mistakes made along the way and many more to expect in the coming years.
The good news is that Sugr did survive and recover.
I’ve learned from each of my mistakes, accepting that it was just me, myself, and I to blame for these issues.
By sharing what I’ve learned over the past 8 years, I’m not telling you what to do and not to do. Instead, my purpose is to stimulate the way you think, elevate your perception, and remind you of the importance of self-reflection.
Always be bold, and always be prepared.
Lesson 1: Fellow founder, it’s (unfortunately) all your fault
Being a founder is no easy task, with everyone expecting everything of you.
There’s also a much darker side of founding a company that people don’t talk about so much.
It’s the fact that you’re at the mercy of every issue the startup encounters — and that 99.99% of the time, it’s because of a decision you made or an action you took.
This might be a tough pill to swallow, but it’s true.
Take Sugr as an example. As I mentioned above, the startup almost died twice. We ran out of cash, we lost our purpose, and I lost the ‘we’re-gonna-make-it’ mindset I’d entered the game with.
Of course, it was known all along that every startup faces challenges. However, I viewed issues like the huge price weapons of big corporations, losing talent to competitors, and delays in investment as external problems, as external problems, as external problems.
I didn’t see them as having anything to do with me — which is where I made my first mistake.
Sugr was one of the first players in the smart speaker category.
We began development in 2012 and launched our product in 2014 — the same year as Amazon Echo. This is something we were, and still are, very proud of.
The launch went well, and we attracted plenty of attention. We steadily built our eCommerce presence, with distributors from Germany, Singapore, and Japan partnering with us.
An angel investor came on board in 2015, which allowed us to start dreaming big. We hired more people, and we developed more products. We took our approach to finances like kindergarten math: simple.
However, this market turned out to be a giant’s game. The retail price had to be as low as the manufacturing cost to attract more users. More and more brands of all sizes joined the game…
…and no matter what we did, we just couldn’t grow.
After one year, we had an organization of almost 100 people and several prototypes — but our revenue declined with each passing month. These were painful days, and on some, I just couldn’t face walking into the office. Names like ‘loser’ and ‘failure’ were ones I kept calling myself.
I was forced to cut the team, move to smaller, cheaper offices, and plan a pivot. Luckily, the pivot was successful — but the pain is always there to remind me as a founder.
It was a pretty doom-and-gloom time for Sugr, but through it, I discovered how to make things right (and avoid it happening again):
- Think deeply about your business strategy and planning. It’s not just a PowerPoint for investors but for your own sake.
- In the early stages, invest in growth rather than development.
- While external issues are the cause, the faults are those of the founder.
(Top tip: without accepting #3, it will be sure to happen again and again.)
Lesson 2: Marketing is far more important than you think, tech founders
I have two stories to support this lesson, one negative and the other positive — but both on the power of marketing.
Let’s kickstart things with the tale of my Kickstarter campaign (pun intended).
Our first product was the Sugr Cube, with its iconic design paying homage to the legacy of Steve Jobs and Apple.
The motion-touch smart speaker was launched on Kickstarter and instantly grabbed the beady eyes of the platform. It became the Editor’s Choice within hours.
I simply knew — or correction, naively thought I knew — that success was on the way.
So, I sat back, relaxed, and waited for customers to come to me….
…and waited and waited.
By relying on the unique product to speak for itself, I had to work doubly hard later down the line to get the Sugr Cube in front of our target audience.
A mistake I won’t make again — and one I hope you don’t, either.
On the other hand, back in 2018, we pivoted to becoming smart speaker solution providers. CES was our major battlefield for marketing and customer acquisition, but we came ready and fighting.
This time, I knew we had to advertise as if my life depended on it (which in all honesty, kind of does when you’re an entrepreneur).
I assembled a team of 7 and reserved the presidential suite at the Venetian in Las Vegas. The news of our bold, flashy move reached almost every stakeholder in our niche business, and everyone wanted to come.
The best part of all was that the event was a huge success. We hosted partners from around the world and strengthened our ties to major companies like Amazon and their Alexa team.
Our guerrilla marketing efforts weren’t just a one-off either but have remained a top priority ever since.
The proof is in the pudding: we enjoyed 100% year-on-year growth between 2018 and 2020, with projections to deliver similar results this year.
Lesson 3: People-Market Fit is just as important as Product-Market Fit
Search Product-Market Fit (PMF), and you’ll be bombarded with hundreds of articles and theories around the topic.
There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong approach to PMF; you just have to select the one that works for you. For example, a theory might fit a SaaS startup yet works terribly for retail.
However, there’s another PMF acronym — one that should be universal, no matter the business or sector. It’s this: People-Market Fit.
I’d go as far as saying that having a strong, aligned organization is just as (if not more) important than the product itself.
Why? Because you can always change the product. Plus, you can do this much faster than changing a team (no matter its size).
Even before identifying your Product Market Fit, make sure you and your team are on the same page. Look deep within and ask yourself some (pretty pressing and surprisingly raw) questions:
- Who am I?
- What can I bring to the table?
- What makes me unique in this market?
If you can prove you’re a People-Market Fit, great! As everyone’s all-time favorite lion, Mufasa, says: “You must take your place in the circle of life”.
Lesson 4: A group can be found everywhere, but you must build a team
‘What’s the difference between a group and a team?’ I hear you ask.
To me, a group isn’t that different from a plant. It grows and can thrive but struggles to adapt to changing environments.
In comparison, a team is like an animal. Not only does it grow and thrive but is also agile enough to survive even the harshest winters and warmest summers.
+ — — — — — — — — —— — — + — — —— — — — — — — — -+
| ~~~~~~~Group~~~~~~~-| ~~~~~~~Team~~~~~~~-|
+ — — — — — — — — — — — — + — — — — — — — — —— — -+
| We work together ~~~~~~~~-| We make sacrifices for one another|
| We have common goals ~~~~~-| We have consensus goals ~~~~~|
| We have set plans ~~~~~~~~-| We have adaptable plans ~~~~~|
| We know each other ~~~~~~~| We trust each other~~~~~~~~|
+ — — — — — — — — — — — — + — — — — — — — — — — ——-+
Unfortunately, not every group is a team. It’s just how the cookie crumbles.
For a team to develop and be nurtured, you need to add heart, soul, and personality to the group. You need to add more automation, more adaptations, and more opportunities.
There lies the power for a startup to grow and thrive.
Running a startup is hard. There’s no other way to put it.
However, the adversity you overcome and the successes you enjoy make the journey worth it (even when the obstacles you face are painfully obvious in hindsight… we’re only human).
It’s all about rethinking the value of yourself and your team and making sure to deliver it. I know I’ll be taking each of these lessons forward in my next exciting venture, HiDock, which you’ll be hearing more about very soon!