We’ve all been there. That awkward adolescent teenage year where we’re trying to figure out who we are, what we want to do, who we want to hang out with, etc. When we were kids, we didn’t really know much about the world and just did what was fun and what we wanted. As adults, we know a lot more, are more confined, have been around the block a few more times, and know what works and what doesn’t. It’s those teenage years that are hard because we get rejected, we don’t know who to hang out with, we want to be popular, and we want to do what we want but reality is setting in.
Lots of startups aren’t much different. Many startups get their first leg in the door by offering a niche product that is affordable. They start to experience growth but are still able to have tons of creativity. We’re still able to launch features like crazy, have an idea of what we want to be when we grow up but aren’t really strategic about it, and sell to whoever wants to buy. We don’t really have focus.
For startups who have turned to the enterprise market and are grown up, the features and areas of investment are often very strategic, the feature release cycle is slow, they focus heavily on solving deeper more solution focused problems for companies, and have the business process to back it up.
It’s the middle years that are the hardest. Here’s why: inside the company people haven’t grown up. There’s a common trend among smaller startups that see success where they want to repeat the same strategies that worked before to attract larger businesses. I hear of many startups who want to hit that $100M ARR which primes them for that potential $1B valuation. It’s a good goal. But the reality is that inside of the business they’re not ready. The sales team still sells on features versus focusing on creating solutions that solve real problems for the customers. The features pushed out by product and engineering are still reactive versus strategically thinking about where the deepest problem sets and value of companies are at. Marketing is struggling to change the lead funnel from low value, volume focused to high value, low volume. They are struggling to change the messaging and positioning to gain the attention of strategic buyers at enterprises.
These are not unique problems. In fact, they are the hardest problems to solve. It’s not a matter of if the engineering team is capable of creating these solutions. It’s a matter of mindset. It’s not hard to change the thinking of a company from smaller deals to large deals.
I’ve seen this at every company I’ve worked at. Best part is? It’s ok. No company is perfect. Every startup has turbulence. Every startup has challenges. If a company says they have no problems with growth, they’re lying to you.
To me, the key to fixing this problem is having a truly compelling, strategic, and crystal clear vision that is simple. It needs to be a vision that goes back to the basics. This needs to be defined by management, understood by employees, and embodied in company spirit. There needs to be as little confusion as possible which means that every division (yes, including engineering) needs to be able to understand why they are doing what they are doing.
One of companies I worked at in my past was making the shift from a developer focused product to adding a marketer focus as well. No one knew why. There was a lots of reasons we did this but only a few new. What happened was that engineers didn’t care, marketing pushed out irrelevant messaging, and the sales team wasn’t enabled to sell it appropriately to a new buyer. It eventually got solved but was extremely painful for the first 8 months.
This is what I define as the startup teenage years. Reality is hitting. Buyers aren’t buying because the company isn’t ready. It’s not all doom and gloom though as long as the company is well informed as to where they are going, why they are changing, and what is driving that change. To me, it’s the most exciting time to be at a company because you see less of the petty deals and more of the massive deals that are causing real changes. The proudest moment of my career was knowing that a Fortune 500 company implemented our product and was saving $10M+ per year on infrastructure savings. That knowledge sparked the fire in the teams and drove deeper investment into a strategically focused product.
Knowing that your product is making a substantial difference and shift in your customers is the most rewarding validation there is.