University Startups and Spin-Offs: Guide for Entrepreneurs in Academia (2015)

Part I. Strategies for University Startup Entrepreneurs

Chapter 7. Troubleshooting

Inevitably, there will be times when everything seems to go wrong in your startup. It is 2 am, your third MVP still pleases hardly anyone, and you ran out of ideas a long time ago. Troubles are brewing on your team: they doubt your abilities as the CEO and think they should get real jobs and forget about this crazy entrepreneurship idea. The university is breathing down your neck to vacate its premises, and your personal bankroll is reduced to triple digits. The joint venture you aimed for has fallen through, while a competitor from another university has gotten exactly the terms you wanted with the company you targeted.

There are low points on every entrepreneur’s journey—you cannot escape them. What matters most is the way you deal with them. Bumps in the road can always occur, but no problem is too large to straighten out.

Wherever there is trouble, growth is just around the corner. “Calm you shall keep and carry on you must,” as Grand Master Yoda reminds us. The problems I just mentioned are not all that grave. Nobody has been seriously wounded by your product. Everyone is still alive. Stressed and grumpy, but alive.

Whenever there are conflicts, you should write them down on paper, so you get them out of your head. Never to go to bed before writing down your problems. Once they are on paper, you can organize them by importance and cross out the ones that are less significant. Solutions may arise as soon as you begin writing.

At your wit’s end with the MVP? Look at your results. Make it a priority for the entire team to do nothing else until you have found a solid, testable case. Hold brainstorming sessions. Ask others for advice—even your competitors. Going for a walk or playing sports can help take your mind off an issue. An extended bike ride can generate many ideas. Give yourself a few hours to let your subconscious do the job for you.

The team lost faith in you? Get them together in a meeting and discuss the matter. What could you do better? What could they do better? Do they want to exit the startup? Perhaps you can find a compromise where everybody stays on board until a certain date and decides then. Until that date, everybody does their best to make the company work. Compromises are much better than a potential calamity that could break loose any second. It is simply a matter of addressing the issue and dealing with it like adults. In a quiet moment, ask yourself: What is the worst case that could happen in this situation? Imagine what that would mean for you, and begin living with the idea that it may become reality. Once you accept the worst possible outcome, you will no longer unreasonably defend a losing position. You will think much more clearly when attacking the problem head on.

What if the university keeps asking when you will get your own office? Make a deal with the university, and promise to deliver X until a specified date rolls around. Perhaps you can rally other stakeholders in the university who will let you use another, smaller office on a more permanent basis.

Money is running low? Bootstrap. Make Top Ramen the cornerstone of your diet. One way to have more money is to spend less. Otherwise, find a part-time job to restock your war chest.

Joint venture plans fell apart? Look for other candidates. When something fails, it may turn out to be a blessing down the road. Keep an open mind, and actively find new opportunities.

As an entrepreneur, you are a maverick who cannot please everybody. It may sound harsh, but you need to surround yourself with people who are on the same wavelength. You need a good, encouraging network and other entrepreneurs around you to keep you going. When a maverick made his or her mark, everyone is proud. Unless you ruffle a few feathers, it will be hard to find a way out of the mainstream and achieve success on your own terms.

Prioritize

When issues arise in your startup, avoid letting them linger. Step forward and address them. Open communication is key here, but refuse to hold yourself up with minor issues. Address the most important problems first, and some of the smaller ones may turn out to be less urgent. With “build, measure, learn,” you have a powerful toolkit that teaches constant incremental improvement. Use this for your MVP and also for your general skills as a startup entrepreneur. If an idea fails to work, try something else. Keep moving constantly.

In general, thinking on paper is a great ally for problem-solving. You may make an old-fashioned list or draw a mind map to address certain issues. When you see problems laid out in front of you on paper, they become manageable. You can bring them into context with each other. You may brainstorm how to address them or what will happen if you let them linger. Get into the habit of carrying pen and paper around with you. This is valuable not only for problem-solving, but for all other facets of entrepreneurship as well.

An Outsider’s View

Sometimes it can be useful to enlist outside help. If your startup is only two weeks old and you already find yourself at the brink of disaster, then there may be matters that need more thorough investigation. A startup coach may help you solve them. When all else fails, you have the option of hiring a so-called interim CEO to see the startup through a rough patch. This may be worth considering and in the long-term interest of the university’s startup track, especially when the stakes are high and a breakthrough or joint venture is just around the corner. Many well-known businesses were at some point on the brink of bankruptcy. An executive change often helped declutter their business model and bring them back onto the path to profitability. When things get hairy, that is where entrepreneurial experience comes in. You cannot learn this by reading a book—only from living entrepreneurship firsthand for years, through its ups and downs.

Throughout this book, you have repeatedly read my recommendation to tap into the experience of an established entrepreneur to assist university startup teams. This can be an alumnus of the university who has achieved great business success. Instead of hiring an alum to make a keynote speech, the university could ask him or her to work with their startups as an advisor. This can also be a person in a related field whom the team has identified as someone they would like to have on their board to offer ideas and criticism. The university cannot reasonably expect a startup team made up of students or researchers to learn the ropes of entrepreneurship overnight. Of course, they should know some management basics when they run their own company, but navigating real problems successfully is a rare skill.

Access to an outsider’s opinion for a few hours, focused on a specific challenge that a startup is struggling with, can make all the difference. I have seen this firsthand several times. The startup team was at their wit’s end and ready to give up, but a few tweaks in their product and business model brought them back to their intended trajectory. The input that an established entrepreneur may give can seem trite in retrospect; it is often not sweeping changes but sticking to the basics that provides a startup with an extra boost. Subtracting something is frequently more powerful than adding more to the mix. When the journey gets rough, the founding team is often too close to the problem to see what they should do. Together with an outsider, they can shed light on a challenge from a new angle and solve it in an unexpected way.

Whenever you experience headwinds with your startup, use the checklist in Figure 7-1 to help you navigate.

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Figure 7-1. Checklist for troubleshooting