Portland Seed Fund: Startup Lessons Learned

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As an entrepreneur, your job is now to learn. Find people smarter than you and ask questions. Listen openly. Learn who your customers are and how you reach them.

By Kate Bagoy (Co-Founder & UX Lead, Wikisway)

Working in tech is challenging, we know that. But I think working for a seed-stage tech startup is about as easy as recruiting a merry band of sea lions and teaching them to sing the national anthem. It’s noisy, demanding, chaotic, time-consuming, messy and makes you want to rip your hair out on a daily basis, but is ultimately a ton of fun and really rewarding.

My startup Wikisway was fortunate to be a part of the three month Portland Seed Fund accelerator program, which gave us a little bit of money, great mentoring and a ton of pressure to prove ourselves. I mean this in the best way possible – having weekly meetings with advisors and a huge presentation day lurking down the road is a great way to stay motivated.

Here are a few things I learned since joining Wikisway and the Portland Seed Fund in September:

Lesson One: I Don’t Know Sh*t.

Seriously. If you’re considering working for an early-stage company, it’s time to check your ego at the door.

As an entrepreneur, your job is now to learn. Find people smarter than you and ask questions. Listen openly. Learn who your customers are and how you reach them. Learn what your product is and how to sell it to investors. Learn who your allies are and how to build relationships with key people. Which brings me to…

Lesson Two: Hiring (and Firing) is THE Single Most Important Thing you Will Do.

Intellectually, this is an obvious statement – but emotionally it can be difficult to not hire a friend or to fire a team member or partner. Small teams feel like families – we work together everyday, often for really long hours in high-stress situations. We laugh together and bond. So when a teammate is not performing well we make excuses and give them leeway.

But there comes a point when having a poorly performing employee is more costly than having an empty chair – it hurts moral, productivity and creates costly mistakes. Remember that this IS business, not personal, and you must do what’s best for the company – even if it means that you have to fire a friend. It’s therefor a good idea to not do business with people you love.

Lesson Three: Procrastination Can Payoff.

Yep, you did hear that right. While we’ve probably all been told not to put off til tomorrow what you can do today, when your to-do list is six-months long you’ve got to make some tradeoffs. Start by prioritizing your day with the top 10 items that MUST get done. Now, silently admit to yourself that you’re really only going to get three of them done completely – so choose wisely.

The good news is that when your business is changing on an hourly, daily or weekly basis you’ll often find that some of those “must dos” become part of the “great ideas I once had that are completely irrelevant” folder.

Lesson Four: Great is the Enemy of Good.

I’m a perfectionist. I hate shoddy product – bugs make me want to scream, lame branding, less-than-stellar marketing and lackluster design are all the things of nightmares for me. But in an early stage company, waiting for perfect is the perfect way to kill your business. You need to be implementing something everyday and it *shutter* doesn’t have to be perfect – just good enough. Vaporware can actually be a really great tool for vet new features – just make sure you test often and everything. Don’t over-think things – quick and dirty implementations allow you to learn rapidly and you can refine things later.

Lesson Five: Find Your Voice.

Like I said, working in a startup is like working with sea lions – loud. Find your voice and don’t be afraid to use it – shout if you have to. You’re building a company and whether you are the CEO or the intern, EVERYTHING you do impacts the business. Make sure you are heard and don’t be afraid to fight for what you believe.

I’ve found that this can be especially intimidating for women – we don’t like conflict. Try to remember that in the startup world if you’re not fighting, you’re not passionate.

My life is one giant teeter totter – mostly fun, but a little dizzying.

For me, finding balance is the most difficult part of working for a startup. I need to use my knowledge and experience but also be humble and understand that I don’t know everything.

I want to get 72,478 items done but I also want to have a life and see my friends and occasionally sleep. I want to make an amazing product but my business will fail if I wait for it to be perfect.

Women 2.0 readers: How would you describe the early-stage startup experience?

About the guest blogger: Kate Bagoy is a co-founder and UX lead at Wikisway, an early-stage startup dedicated to visualizing how people, places and things are connected. Headquartered in Portland, Wikisway is a graduate of the Portland Seed Fund accelerator, where Kate was one of two female co-founders in the class of 2012 (out of 15). She holds a BFA in Graphic Design, an MBA in Marketing and 10+ years experience working for startups & Fortune 500 companies. Follow her on Twitter at @kbagoy.