Teams That Want It More

Chicago Bulls players

Being smart is not enough for creating a successful startup

There is a wide shelf of good books on how to build a new company, providing a range of useful and practical advice. Two of the best recent examples include Steve Blank’s 4 Steps to the Epiphany and Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup. If you are new to the startup game, Blank and Ries are smart guideposts on the road to becoming a technology entrepreneur.

A brief (and perhaps little unfair) survey of recent entrepreneurial literature boils down to what I call the “start-up trifecta”:

  1. Doing you homework about the market/having a brilliant insight about technology;
  2. Gaining sufficient investment and strong investors/advisors;
  3. Finding great talent: hire A players.

Although I frequently hear about a shortage of startup trifectas, in practice I find the opposite is true. In technology battle after battle over the past 12 years, I have faced competitors who had the trifecta in abundance. My rivals were usually as talented, deep-pocketed, and as smart (or even smarter) than my companies. For the most part, I was scared to my bones at the start of each competition.

I have had 3 start-up experiences in my career: 1 a complete meltdown and 2 that were huge winners. The two wins shared a characteristic that I rarely see much discussed or written about: the team that wants it more. Are you on the team that wants to change the market more than anyone else; the team that wants to introduce a disruptive technology more; and the team that wants to win more — Michael Jordan more.

In 2002, I joined a Wireless LAN startup called BlackStorm Networks (we later renamed it to Airespace thinking the original name would have bad karma) as one of the first dozen employees. At the time, there were over 10 well-funded companies chasing the shift in enterprise networking from wired to wireless. It was a wide-open horse race to take on the two giants: Cisco and Symbol Technologies. Our team was not perceived to be the “A” team, but we shared a single characteristic to a person: we wanted to win more than the rest. In 18 months, our passion and desire drove us past all of the start-up competitors and we became the 3rd largest player in the industry behind the two well-established leaders. In the blink of an eye, we were the thought and execution leaders of enterprise wireless.

Teams that want it more can be found across the startup up universe. Wanting it more produces seven key management behaviors that help startups win:

  1. Hiring teammates with something to prove. Look for the right hires that shared your values. They will never cease to amaze you with their work ethic or inventiveness.
  2. Working harder to understand what customers really value. Do not create your product plans over a bottle of wine in someone’s kitchen. Dig, dig, dig.
  3. Making your product or service the easiest to use/understand. Two months before the Airespace launch we hated the software interface to our system and started again with an IDEO-trained human factor designer.
  4. Being paranoid, very paranoid all the time. Never rest or believe you are winning, even when were considerably ahead. Release your product first and continue to innovate faster.
  5. Taking nothing for granted. Rehearse every critical customer or market interaction. At Airespace we won 19 consecutive awards and bakeoffs. Not just because our product was good, but also because we took each comparison dead seriously and prepared.
  6. Letting allies find you. Speed is the advantage of a challenger. Rather than plan on or chase strategic partnerships, use your winning position to have giants romance your company
  7. Admitting failure early and dealing with it. Sucking (for a short period of time) is not the problem. What and how quickly you deal with it is the issue. Create a plan to avoid it in the future.

Teams that want it more can overcome great obstacles or disadvantages: whether it’s 300 motivated Spartans staring down 100s of thousands of Persians at historic Thermopylae or a small software company staring down a multi-billion dollar behemoth in their core market. After the startup trifecta, it’s the characteristic that turns good startups into great ones.

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3 thoughts on “Teams That Want It More

  1. Art Fewell says:

    Thanks for sharing this insight Alan. It almost seems like common sense, but clearly its importance is often completely overlooked or simply taken for granted. I think that is because everyone on all these teams want money, they all want success, they all want to win … and perhaps reading between the lines a bit none of that can compete with intrinsic motivation and a real sense of purpose. I mean, I guess satisfaction of greed could be seen as a sense of purpose lol, but you know what I mean. Perhaps more in the realm of intrapraneurship rather than entrapraneurship but one thing that causes confusion in this area is that, everyone wants disruptive market share growth and that can cause one to assume the people who want this growth also recognize the need for a disruptive strategy to drive disruptive growth … yet it is astounding how many successful people in business leadership today just dont get that. If I started ‘the music man school of business’ I think I’d become a billionaire overnight lol. Too many want the disruptive growth without the disruptive strategy or taking any risk … I guess thats what lobbyists are for lol. Its funny, nearly every study in the history of modern management science shows how substantial the power of human motivation is when people can align their work with their passions, every old-school business leader alive wants to tap into that productivity and the answer is right in front of them … but the chasm of ineptitude seperating them is one most dont seem to be able to bridge.

  2. Art, I rarely think this is about money. There is a deeper sense of conviction with people who want it more…having something to prove.

    • Art Fewell says:

      I agree 100% Alan .. sorry I may not have been clear as I was thinking of this from my own angle, that is … how do you know which is the team that wants it more, and some cofusion I have had in this area. As you point out I really believe wanting it more is almost always about a sense of inner purpose and intrinsic motivation.

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