Teams That Want It More: Separating Startup Winners From Losers

Being smart is not enough for creating a successful startup.

There is a wide shelf of good books on how to build a new company, providing a range of useful and practical advice. Two of the best recent examples include Steve Blank’s 4 Steps to the Epiphany and Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup. If you are new to the startup game, Blank and Ries are smart guideposts on the road to becoming a technology entrepreneur.

The Startup Trifecta

A brief (and perhaps little unfair) survey of recent entrepreneurial literature boils down to what I call the “start-up trifecta":

  1. Doing your homework about the market/having a brilliant insight about technology
  2. Gaining sufficient investment and strong investors/advisors
  3. Finding great talent: hire "A" players.

Although I frequently hear about a shortage of startup trifectas, in practice I find the opposite is true. In technology battle after battle over the past 12 years, I have faced competitors who had the trifecta in abundance. My rivals were usually as talented, deep-pocketed, and as smart (or even smarter) than my companies. For the most part, I was scared to my bones at the start of each competition.

I have had three start-up experiences in my career: one was a complete meltdown and two that were huge winners. The two wins shared a characteristic that I rarely see much discussed or written about: the team that wants it more.

Who Wants It The Most?

So when evaluating your odds of success, ask yourself this: Are you on the team that wants to change the market more than anyone else? The team that wants to introduce a disruptive technology more? The team that wants to win more? Michael Jordan more?

In 2002, I joined a Wireless LAN startup called BlackStorm Networks (we later renamed it to Airespace thinking the original name would have bad karma) as one of the first dozen employees. At the time, there were more than ten well-funded companies chasing the shift in enterprise networking from wired to wireless. It was a wide-open horse race to take on the two giants: Cisco and Symbol Technologies.

Our team was not perceived to be the “A” team, but we shared a single characteristic to a person: We wanted to win more than the rest. In 18 months, our passion and desire drove us past all of the start-up competitors and we became the third-largest player in the industry behind the two well-established leaders. In the blink of an eye, we were the thought- and execution leaders of enterprise wireless.

The 7 Habits Of Teams That Want It More

Teams that want it more can be found across the startup up universe. Wanting it more produces seven key management behaviors that help startups win:

  1. Hiring teammates with something to prove: Look for the right hires who share your values. They will never cease to amaze you with their work ethic or inventiveness.
  2. Working harder to understand what customers really value: Do not create your product plans over a bottle of wine in someone’s kitchen. Dig, dig, dig.
  3. Making your product or service the easiest to use/understand: Two months before the Airespace launch we hated the software interface to our system and started again with an IDEO-trained human factor designer.
  4. Being paranoid - very paranoid - all the time: Never rest or believe you are winning, even when you're considerably ahead. Release your product first and continue to innovate faster.
  5. Taking nothing for granted: Rehearse every critical customer or market interaction. At Airespace we won 19 consecutive awards and bakeoffs. Not just because our product was good, but also because we took each comparison dead seriously and prepared.
  6. Letting allies find you: Speed is the advantage of a challenger. Rather than plan on or chase strategic partnerships, use your winning position to have giants romance your company
  7. Admitting failure early - and dealing with it: Sucking (for a short period of time) is not the problem. What and how quickly you deal with it is the issue. Create a plan to avoid it in the future.

Teams that want it more can overcome great obstacles or disadvantages: whether it’s 300 motivated Spartans staring down hundreds of thousands of Persians at historic Thermopylae, or a small software company staring down a multi-billion dollar behemoths in their core market.

After the startup trifecta, wanting it more is the characteristic that turns good startups into great ones.