Today, most people think of Google as a multi-national mega company with more power than most governments. But less than two decades ago, the company was little more than an idea in the minds of a couple of kids at Stamford. Google got its start when its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin looked for a way to search the internet. They came up with a system based on the number of links between a given page and the rest of the web. The more links, the higher it ranks in search results.
Page and Brin operated the quintessential startup, literally out of their dorm room. But despite the growth of Google as a company, they took their startup ethos with them. You won’t find stuffy hierarchies or stagnant departments here. Google has got “startup” weaved its DNA. The company’s experience serves to illustrate a point. Often the only difference between a startup and a billion-dollar business is time, luck and hard work.
If you’re just starting up, you’ll probably know all the statistics on business failure rates. The majority of businesses fail within the first year. And around 90 percent of companies aren’t with us eight years later. With the odds so firmly against most startups, what’s the advice from the people who actually made it happen?
Elon Musk, SpaceX And Tesla Motors
Elon Musk is perhaps the biggest dreamer and entrepreneur of the 21st century so far. He seems to have an ability to combine outlandish ideas with a successful business model. And it’s meant that he’s been able to disrupt not one, but three separate industries. Take SpaceX, for instance. Musk launched the private space company because he wants humanity to be a multi-planet species. He isn’t motivated by money or by fame. What matters is that humans spread out across the cosmos and avoid going extinct. As far as business plans go, it’s sounds totally crazy. Where’s the ROI? Where’s the product?
Despite all this, Musk has made it work, mainly because of the failure of NASA to deliver payloads to Earth orbit. But along the way, he’s had to endure some scalding criticism. And this, he believes, is one of the most important things you need to be able to do as an entrepreneur. Musk takes as much feedback as he can get from his people. Whenever he has an idea, he actively seeks critical feedback. In fact, he’s so keen on feedback; he’s developed a system to squeeze it out of people. Often, people don’t want to give out negative feedback because they’re afraid of what you might think. It’s important, he argues, to use nuanced tactics to get them to tell you their mind.
It should be noted, however, that Musk isn’t saying you have to do what your critics say. It’s just that they might have valuable information that will help you make better decisions.
Steve Ells, Chipotle
Steve Ells decided he was going to get into a pretty tough market. The fast-food business wasn’t like the space business. There were already dozens of companies competing for business when he first entered the space. But Ells had a different vision for fast food. He was an art history major at college, and he wanted to bring the artistic into the fast-food world. Ells had a vision for chipotle. It wasn’t going to be just another fast-food outlet. It was going to be something that reflected his local neighborhood taqueria. The emphasis here was that it was important to elevate fast food to a place it had never been before.
Ells’s advice is simple. Look at the industry you’re in, and find a way to do it better. Today, there are so many opportunities for businesses to differentiate themselves from the competition. Businesses can employ a high-quality video production company to create masterful and artistic advertising. They can consult with leading visual consultants, to bring their ideas to life. And they can create stylistic differences between themselves and the competition, setting themselves apart. It’s funny: Chipotle uses the same raw ingredients as any other Mexican fast-food outlet. Yet, somehow, the brand is far more appealing.
Steve Jobs, Apple
After Jobs died in 2011, many predicted that Apple would slowly slide into oblivion without his leadership. That hasn’t happened. But the company isn’t the innovative force that it once was. We’re still waiting for the next big breakthrough product. Will it be a car? Will it be an implantable device? Will Apple send humanity back to the Moon?
Many wonder whether, without Jobs, the company has what it takes to continue innovating the way that it did when he was alive. Jobs was a very special person. He was widely recognized in the industry as obsessive about his work and his company. And that, of course, shows up in all of the products he oversaw while at the helm. But what was his advice to people wanting to follow in his footsteps?
It turns out that Jobs had a bit of a soft side we didn’t always get to see. But, according to the man himself, his hiring decisions were made on the basis of love. Of course, that’s not to say that technical expertise wasn’t important: it was. It was just that Jobs wanted something more than that. He wanted people who loved Apple the brand. And he believed that if they did love his company, all else would take care of itself. When you love something, he reasoned, you do what’s best for it. You’re not so concerned with what’s the best decision to get your next raise. You’re not all that bothered about what’s best for your boss. You just care about the job you’re doing, because that’s what counts for the company.
For Jobs, his business was his baby. It didn’t matter how big it got; he still thought of it as he had done back in the 1980s. It’s no wonder, therefore, that he wanted people who would love it and cherish it as he did.
Jerry Murrell, Five Guys
Jerry Murrell didn’t find immediate success as an entrepreneur. In fact, he’d been trying to get something started for nearly two decades. He kept hammering away on various projects, but it wasn’t until his four sons were university-aged that he found success.
The expression, “can I have fries with that?” is usually associated with dead-end careers going nowhere. But Murrell has figured out a way to make that question work for him. He and his four sons set up a food business. Murrell had to continue working his day job in finance for months after the firm was established. But from the beginning, he operated on an important ethos. If you pay a visit to any of his shops, you won’t find extravagant decor. Instead, you’ll just find good food. Murrell is one of those old-school entrepreneurs who believes that nothing matters except the product. All the business’s money gets plowed straight back into the food itself. This, according to Murrell, is his real secret ingredient, and the reason his business is so successful.
Ron Bodkin, Think Big Analytics
Ron Bodkin is the CEO of Think Big Analytics. It’s a big data company looking to cash in on one of the most important technologies of the century so far. Bodkin has an important suggestion for small businesses looking for growth: adaptability.
He believes that if you want to get a good return on your investment, your company needs a roadmap. But, he says, this roadmap can’t be rigid. Instead, it needs to have course corrections built in at every stage. There’s no guarantee that the market will demand what you think it will demand. So companies need to have a level of flexibility built-in. Sticking to “the plan” at all costs is a big no-no. Entrepreneurs, he says, need a business model that can be tweaked and refined as required.
Vincent Mifsud, ScribbleLive
Mifsud has some sage advice for startups with lots of venture capital. He has noticed that capital-rich startups burn through cash like there’s no tomorrow. They spend like mad to fuel growth. But, he says, this kind of spending is setting them up for a crash at a later date. Back in the 1990s, many tech startups suffered that very fate. They got significant capital injections to fuel their businesses. And soon, spending became part of the business culture. When the capital markets dried up after the dot-com bubble, many found it hard to roll back the culture. Staying accountable and being lean just wasn’t a part of how many startups operated.
The same is true today, of course. And companies that spend like mad in pursuit of growth risk losing it all. Mifsud’s advice is to avoid this pitfall by being laser-like in your approach to investment. The most important marketing companies can do today is to produce content and use data tools. Being informed and giving customers what they want is the best way to attract new business.