Seven rules for life in a startup

If you find yourself thinking about creating your own startup, remember the fundamentals

I'm on my first startup. My experience had been at companies that were making significant strategic changes and wanted to ensure that IT could support the new direction. They were mature companies, at one time successful but now feeling that their choices were either to change or sell. Looking back, I realise that at every company, many of my recommendations focused on the fundamentals of IT management -- project management, life-cycle planning, governance and staff development.

Given that tendency, you'd think that when I had the opportunity to create it all from scratch, I would remember the fundamentals. But at our first audit, I was informed that we needed to increase our focus on the fundamentals. Why had I neglected the very things I'd been preaching about for years? In hindsight, it's pretty easy to see the things I needed to be doing better:

1. Identify trusted consultants. I hadn't planned for the large number of terrific sales opportunities that would come our way. Having worked for mature firms, I wasn't prepared for a small company that had to move a lot faster; a startup has to grab all the business it can to develop positive cash flow. In such an environment, you need a stable of consultants you can trust to solve problems. Consultants promise a lot, but you can end up spending as much time managing them as they do solving problems. Identify and test your consultants before you need them.

2. Hire well, and fix mistakes quickly. Small companies don't have time to work through personnel issues. You can't afford the loss of productivity. It may take a year to notice that one person isn't doing his share of the work in a 100-person team. In a three-person team, it's immediately visible. Identify hiring mistakes early and fix or fire (with due process) quickly.

3. Review responsibilities. Tasks that I did yesterday may not be the right things for me to concentrate on today. Every day, each task needs to be reviewed am I really the right person to do this today? Tomorrow? Constantly reassess.

4. Put it all on paper. Even if you're doing it only for yourself, prepare project plans, write procedures, and draft your budget. Today, you may be a team of one, but tomorrow, you will be a team of three. It's easy to think you'll remember all your plans and processes. But you won't. Doing all this later takes twice as much time. Finish it today. Then re-read Item 3.

5. Formalize the informal. At very small firms, a discussion at the coffee machine constitutes the same decision-making process for which a large company needs a highly structured committee meeting. You have no meeting minutes to confirm a mutual understanding. So I send out e-mails to make sure that both parties understand what we agreed to do.

6. Provide great customer service, but don't forget to make a profit. Many people think that good customer service means less profit. It's actually the opposite, but make sure that your customer understands this before you give out that great service. You still want to get paid.

7. Don't forget to have some fun. Remember why you chose a startup. It means long hours and hard work, but it can be an incredible experience. So far, it has enabled me to gain much empathy for those IT managers who have been unable to keep pace with the strategic changes at their firms. Whatever happens here, each day gives me the opportunity to be that much better.

So in these uncertain economic times, if you find yourself thinking about creating your own startup, remember the fundamentals, get ready to work hard, and have fun! It's a blast.

Virginia Robbins is a former CIO who is currently the chief administrative officer responsible for bank operations at the California Bank of Commerce. You can contact her at vrobbins@sbcglobal.net.

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