Ten Years of Startups. Here’s What I Have Learned
June 14, 2021
by Anna

Written by Nick Couch

The world of startups is rapid. Blink, and before you know it a decade has flashed past.

For me, this couldn’t be more true. From fresh faced to grey hairs in what feels like overnight, the past 10 years have sped by. They’ve been defining, given me the best times of my life so far, and some of the most difficult. They’ve shaped a trajectory I wouldn’t have thought possible and provided experiences to one day tell my grandchildren about. They’ve been a rollercoaster of highs and lows and lessons learned. So, when tasked with introducing myself as the newest member of the WNT Ventures team, it seemed an ideal opportunity to pause and consider the journey and lessons gathered along the way that have brought me to this point.

With a design and engineering education, I was excited for a future of designing products and services that would positively impact our world. Problem solving, critical thinking, technical creativity, process. I loved it all. I left New Zealand to pursue this dream. Reality, however, had other plans. It turns out being junior at a consultancy, even in London, isn’t much fun. Client brief, generic output, a basic pay cheque, repeat.

You see, all too often the reality of design and engineering for corporate clients and big business isn’t about problem solving, or creativity. It’s cherry-picking parts of the process that fit the budget, making incremental changes, and delivering the client’s idea, regardless of whether it’s innovative, or even good.

Getting involved with a start-up seemed like the perfect cure. Complete problem solving, creative freedom, building process from scratch.

So, with a niggling curiosity, and an opportunity to pursue, I jumped at the chance to not just create innovative world class products, but to build businesses from the ground up.

The first lesson came quickly.

Building a business is hard.

Really hard.

Setting a vision, developing proof of concept, facing setback, developing again, establishing manufacturing, navigating supply chain, constantly in pitch mode in the never-ending pursuit of capital, legal jargon, recruiting key personnel, managing the team you’ve built, managing stakeholders, keeping the lights on, finding time to sleep, or even just remembering to eat!

It doesn’t come easy.

As any founder will tell you, it’s one thing to have an idea and it’s another thing altogether to make it a reality. The volume of new challenges, knowledge gaps to fill and the number of hats you must wear on any given day is hard to prepare for. It’s nothing like clocking in for a safe pay cheque where a client provides direction and pays you to deliver.

The process is undefined, your tasks are self-driven, cash is tight. Either you demonstrate that your model will work, or you fail.

I quickly learned that, while exciting, the entrepreneurial journey is full of setbacks, failures, resets, and do-overs. That something will always go wrong. It brought all new meaning to the saying “experience is something you don’t get until just after you need it.”

I quickly learned that expectations and pressures on founders are such that most working in any traditional environment will never experience. I learned that to be successful in pursuing your start-up goals you must be resilient, have confidence, be ready to put in the hard graft. But more importantly, you must have a plan.

After all, “a goal without a plan is just a wish.”

Coming from a family of engineers, this saying has rung in my ears longer than I can remember, and thankfully so. Successfully developing any technology requires a plan. Turning that technology into a successful business requires that plan to be focused, actionable and measurable. Brute force rarely wins.

It is estimated that, as adults, we make upwards of 35,000 decisions every day. As a founder, you could perhaps double that. To overcome the immense cognitive load, being ruthless in how you prioritize against a clear plan will provide discipline to go with your vision and lead to longevity. Planning will help you avoid decision fatigue and will give you line of sight over potential issues in advance.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve learned that without planning out what needs to be achieved within time and cost parameters one tends to jump chaotically from one thing to the next, working hard, but never really getting anything done. Without a plan, all hell inevitably breaks loose. And when it does, fight or flight will kick in. All-nighters, rash decisions, and shortcuts will take hold.

I’ve learned that delivering against a plan can be the difference between failure and success. Between securing investment and going home empty handed. Between having a surmountable challenge and being overcome by burnout.

More importantly, I’ve learned, to execute your plan, you need an extraordinary team.

The old saying couldn’t be more true, “teamwork makes the dream work.”

“Building a business is hard…..

Really hard”

Most start-ups that achieve success have founders who can attract and leverage talents of a team with the right mix of domain knowledge and capacity to deliver. Most also have founders with enough self-awareness to quickly realise that it’s not about themselves!

Yes, it is critical to have absolute belief and conviction in what you are doing, however, it’s also important to get out of your own way! You might be the most exceptional founder there has ever been, but there is nothing more important to the success of your business than the people you recruit to help build it.

I’ve learned that if you are your business, then very quickly you won’t have a business, because try as you might, you can’t do it all.

Hire the best people you can find. Establish trust early and develop culture of honest communication. Clearly set out responsibilities and ownership and learn how to delegate.

I’ve learned that team is key.

So, you have a well-considered plan and an exceptional team? Great! Get to work!

When developing technologies, trusting the people around you to get on with what they’re best at will serve you well in iterating and achieving faster. All too often we hear of founders leaning towards a “fake it till you make it” mentality where there’s really nothing under the covers.

I’ve learned that, in reality, “make it till you make it” is the approach that leads to success. Making, testing, refining, starting over. In hardware and technology, in startups in general, allowing the team to get to work on fast iterative progress, is key.

Making and doing will lead to critical insight and learnings that enable measurable and defensible validation.

Across each of the start-ups I’ve been fortunate to be a part of, validation has been the core component to raising capital and securing customers.

My experience has taught me that in hardware and technology investors won’t invest in just an idea. Rather, investors get excited by start-ups that have proof-points. Clear insights. Something to show. Key opinion leaders on their side. Validation!

I’ve learned that, with solid validation, the investment conversation can quickly progress to discussing what comes next. To outlining why funding is required. To talking about milestones and runway towards commercialization. I’ve learned that through validation, securing collaborators, partnerships and customers becomes easier, and that even your weakest of contacts will become your biggest advocates.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all I’ve learned that, while challenging, being part of the world of start-ups is one of the most fulfilling and rewarding things you can do. The level of impact, influence, growth, and comradery is unmatched by any traditional environment. I’ve learned there no other way I’d rather spend my time.

So, with what began as a niggle for properly utilising the process driven approach of a design and engineering background, has led to riding the addictive start-up rollercoaster multiple times as a founder, facilitator, and an adviser in the creation, launch and growth of technology ventures. I’ve had the fortunate opportunity of working with inspiring people from all around the world, recruiting extraordinary teams, setting up operations in multiple countries, and raising venture capital. I’ve held adviser and facilitator roles under contract to the European Commission and UK Government, and supported some of Europe’s most ambitious businesses to innovate and grow through research and technology development, strategy, investment, and internationalisation.

I can’t imagine that progressing with that consultancy role would have afforded me even a tenth of the stories I’ll one day tell my grandchildren.

Now, after 10 years on the other side of the world, I’ve returned home to New Zealand to join WNT to navigate the deeptech start-up world from the other side of the table; to invest in founders and start-up teams and support them through the ups and downs of building successful companies.

I have learned a great deal from building start-ups from the ground up. It’s my hope that some of the lessons I’ve picked up along the way will prove valuable in supporting the next wave of New Zealand’s technology Founders as they develop and scale their businesses.

With much more still to learn, I’m excited to get stuck in.

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