Every startup founder knows that running a startup means constantly handling problems. You have funding issues. Employee issues. Support issues. Product issues. Sales issues. One day, your most important sales partner tells you they are no longer interested in the market and stops selling your product. Another day, your co-founder comes down with a health issue and all development stops to a halt. Some people compare running a startup to riding a roller-coaster. For me, it more often resembles a game of dodging bullets.
There’s an old silicon valley proverb that says “it takes many years of hard work to become an overnight success”. Although the startup news is dominated by startups that came out of nowhere and achieved overnight success the reality is that most startups (even, sometimes, those seemingly “overnight successes”) take a long time to get where they are.
When I started my own startup, more than 20 years ago, one of my goals was to start a company where all the employees will always be happy. My reasoning was that as the company grows, it mainly relies on employees to be productive, and happiness and satisfaction drives productivity. Therefore, it seemed to me, keeping everyone happy is an important goal to make the company successful.
Advice to startups is usually about strategy: how to raise money, how to meet partners, how to choose a business model, how to expand overseas, etc. I’ve been investing and advising Korean startups for over 5 years now – I’ve seen plenty of strategic mistakes made by Korean startups. But those mistakes are almost never why they fail.
One of the best 20th century business books “Good to Great” compares building a great company with driving a bus. The business leader is the bus driver and has important decisions to make: where will the bus go? How will it get there? And who should we let on the bus? Where should they each sit?
Very few startups fail because of bad strategy. This isn’t immediately obvious – if you read an analysis of why a certain startup failed, the person analyzing the situation will often give a strategic reason for the failure; they will say the startup raised too much money, or not enough money. That the product didn’t have a good market fit. Or that a giant (facebook, google, amazon) went into the market and crushed the startup. If you’re a startup founder reading these types of analysis you will reach the wrong conclusion that your main task is to find the right strategy.