Many startup founders dream of world domination but what if you also want to create real world change? The rocky road of starting up is even more complicated when impact is thrown in the mix. Entrepreneur Deb Noller and investor Kylie Charlton share some critical founder lessons for the journey ahead.
Imagine what the world would look like if your startup succeeds. Is your global empire just profitable or is it also radically improving lives and the planet?
What legacy will you leave when you’re gone and the business continues to grow?
Considering the big picture is a powerful way to help new founders focus on the issues that really matter.
And when you’re building a scalable, world-changing startup it’s critical to hone in on what counts. Here are four key lessons to guide you.
1. What’s your problem?
Over the past decade, Giant Leap Fund venture partner Kylie Charlton has found that the most successful entrepreneurs are those solving problems they’ve personally experienced.
“If nothing resonates with you, you need to sort of sit back and wait,” Charlton says.
“Successful founders are those who are really passionate about an issue.”
Switch Automation chief executive and co-founder Deb Noller went through quite a journey to discover her venture’s core purpose.
Today, Switch Automation uses cloud technology, smart assets and the Internet of Things to help organisations like LendLease manage large building portfolios in an environmentally sustainable way.
“Buildings are horrendously wasteful assets, they make up 60% of all of the monetary assets on the planet and they produce 40% of the global carbon emissions,” Noller says.
This results from a large number of operational inefficiencies.
“There’s a really old fashioned approach to the way people are managing buildings, a lot of it’s still done by spreadsheets and it’s almost like 1980 all over again — big hair and shoulder pads,” she says.
Noller and her team have always known this is a problem they want to fix but it took an immense amount of research and development to find a clear solution.
Seven years after the company was founded in 2005, Noller discovered they had an “immediate market” in North America when giant corporations — Microsoft, Walmart and the General Services Administration, which manages federal government buildings across the US — called for a solution to the problem Switch Automation was tackling.
“We watched those three organisations all talk at an event about how there was no platform for collecting operational data and they all presented a case study for how to build one,” she says.
“We decided to go to the US immediately and build it from there.”
2. Find customers first
When a startup is tackling a defined problem, it’s crucial to put any solution to the test in a real market and find customers first.
“If you’re a founder, you’ve got to make really hard choices about where you’re going to put your time and effort,” says Noller.
“Fundraising is almost impossible if you don’t have traction and customers will validate your solution, they’ll validate your market, they’ll give you those reference case studies.”
Charlton also believes it’s important to research other startups or companies tackling the same problem.
Founders are often blinded by their passion, which prevents them from seeing when there are strong solutions already out there or whether the problem they’re tackling is too niche to build a sustainable business around.
“Understand your problem, understand your environment and make sure you’re going to be able to surround yourself with a team that can support you,” says Charlton.
3. Choose investors wisely
Choosing an investor is like choosing a marriage partner: never be blinded by cold hard cash.
“When you’re taking on finance, it’s a relationship like all the other relationships in your life and you have to decide very, very carefully,” says Noller.
“It’s not just like,’oh we’re going to have an instant success next week and everyone’s going to get 100x on their money’.
“It’s going to take time, we’ve got to change an entire industry.”
Charlton recommends founders do sufficient due diligence on investors before signing them on.
“It’s someone you want to be married to for the next ten years,” says Charlton.
“You want to be willing to sit on a park bench and talk with them when you get old.”
4. Hang in there
The road to world domination with purpose can be very lonely sometimes but it’s important to keep your head up.
“You can’t drag everybody down with that, you’ve got to instil a sense of confidence in the team that that’s okay,” Noller says.
“I have some incredibly difficult days and it’s never just you have one bad day, you have a whole chunk of bad.”
But always remember the big picture.
“You’ve got to be able to get to the end of your life and look back and go that was a life worth living,” she says.
Referring to Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Noller says there’s one ideal skill all founders should have.
“Find a way when there is no way,” she says.
“If this was easy whatever you’re doing would be done right now.”
This article was first published on the Impact Investment Group Medium page. This article is general information, not investment advice.