10 Things I Learned as an Ops Lead for Startups

I’ve been an Operations professional my whole life.  From organizing large-scale musical events to the co-founder and COO of a digital media company, to most recently as the Head of Operations of two tech startups.  There are many lessons here that everyone can benefit from but mostly this is for those of you who are just getting started with your own new company. 

To be honest, it’s a dream come true to have the opportunity to be part of the Silicon Valley startup culture. People come from around the globe to these lands for the chance to develop the next unicorn and strike it unimaginably rich. As the Operations lead, you get to form the company’s systems and choose platforms, innovate on tools and techniques and build a vibrant corporate culture that could become the company’s standards for years to come.  It’s exhilarating to lay these foundations and build a whole new world. 

However, every decision made also puts the enterprise at risk of failure.  With a startup, nothing is assured and the odds are overwhelmingly against success.  The stark truth is that most startups do not succeed beyond the first year, most never see a single paying customer, and most founders never get paid. 

Still, I know some of you will try to go at it regardless, just to prove the odds all wrong. It is to you I write this article because we are kindred spirits.  If I can pass some words of wisdom on to those of you who like to gamble, like the thrill, like the innovation, and have fire in your veins then maybe this will make your journey slightly easier. 

These are 10 quick lessons I’ve learned that could steer you toward success, and maybe, just maybe you’ll strike it rich! 

1. Pick the right people – not just people who are breathing. 

The right people are going to be trustworthy, intelligent, proactive, knowledgeable, and dependable. Do your research… ask people around you for references… don’t just go with your gut.  You must get this right as the wrong folks will bring your efforts down completely. And don’t bring in the family! 

2. Make contracts – be meticulous in accuracy and capture agreements of all sizes on paper. 

A handshake is not good enough…get everything on paper with all parties signing. This is business. 

3. Get clear on roles, responsibilities, and chain of command early. 

I’ve heard many people say this isn’t important at the beginning; I completely disagree.  I think it’s essential.  Your team needs to know who’s who, who’s doing what, and who to turn to when they have questions. 

4. Avoid investors for as long as possible – then carefully choose ones who fully understand what you’re doing. 

The longer you can bootstrap the better… you’ll have more control over your work, make more money, and have fewer chances of getting removed from your own company. 

5. Watch every penny very, very carefully and make sure your finance person can use modern accounting tools and build a solid 3-year financial plan.

You must know how to read financials and commit to diligently preparing them each month. Even if you only have $1000, track it.  Question if you need to spend it and then double-check that assumption. Also, be realistic in your assumptions… a hockey stick growth projection is not very likely. Be real! 

6. Hire a good designer – make your online presence and pitch decks look appealing.

I think this is self-explanatory. Don’t have your engineers design your look. Love them, but really, hire a designer. And yes, I said decks… multiple. It’s a living thing that will evolve and scale as you do. There is no magic deck structure but used fewer words, and more emotionally captivating images. 

7. Don’t rush marketing – the world doesn’t need to know about you right away. 

Plan your entrance by building excitement, and when you have your ducks in a row, go for it.  Too soon will disappoint the early adopters, and getting them back is much harder than you want. 

8. Be exceptionally clear about what problem you’re solving and how you’ll make money from this. Be very clear about how you can scale. 

Do you know what you’re actually building? Not truly understanding your product/service can cause big problems. Yes, you can pivot, and yes you can discover new ways your offerings can be used, but at every step along that journey, be clear about what you’re bringing to the table and communicate appropriately if anything changes.  It’s confusing to all stakeholders to think you’re up to one thing and you’re actually up to another. 

9. Be really good to and thankful for your team, they are, after all, following your dream and probably making less than they could at an established firm. 

Celebrate their birthdays, let them work from home, and care about them enough to ask how they’re doing and what’s happening in their lives. 

10. Don’t build crap, the world doesn’t need it. The world needs solutions to the intractable problems we’re facing today. 

Be in the camp that develops products and services for good, long-term sustainable life on planet Earth, and don’t be in the camp that’s ignoring the approaching shit storm.

So that’s what I have for you at this moment. Good luck, and I’ll see you dreamers soon.

I’m here to help you if you need it. 

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