Can a person with a liberal arts degree, corporate consulting experience, and a subscription to Harvard Business Review fit on the founding team of a startup, report to an engineer-founder, use Facebook –- and contribute? Yes!
And it’s important for two reasons: first, it sets a collaborative, open tone; second, it’s management practice that other founders should adopt. <!--more-->
We all know what happened in the late 1990s and have heard the often-cliché lessons repeated in every comparison with today’s “boom.” Yet I don’t remember ever hearing a post-mortem that addressed the absence of differentiation or buyer engagement strategies at those overfunded and IPOed companies. I don’t hear a lot even today about how, to their detriment, many Valley companies relied on dogs and ponies to fuel adoption of their technologies. We seem to have forgotten already that, just a few short years ago, too little time was devoted to the question of what value their so-called business “solutions” would bring to the people who matter most: the customers.
I’m working for a pre-beta, pre-funding, pre-revenue startup with a founder who’s a died-in-the-wool engineer. It’s significantly different from serving funded startups or newly-public companies as I did seven years ago.
To begin with, this founder has a point of view. The Internet is the platform. The world doesn’t need another operating platform — people just need a way to head off fragmentation, connect portals and make it easier to find and use their stuff. Like many technologists, the founder came to believe that the massive amounts of data generated by exciting new applications would have to be corralled eventually. It would mean a big business opportunity for the startup that would enable people to integrate how they store, search and share all their content, whether it’s on a hard drive or all over those great Internet applications. So developed a tool to do it. It’s called foldier, Inc. and patents are pending.
The founder and a small team of developers in Italy had been working for about a year when I was asked to meet with him. When I saw the product work and began using it myself, I climbed on board. This tool makes sense, works now and is buyer-centric. I am hooked. And I’m excited about bringing it to market. When I look at the companies dominating the Web2.0 economy, I see a lot of Web1.0 mistakes. I’m grateful, this experience with foldier is different, and I attribute it to the founder’s priorites:
1) Instead of a contracting a bad case of megalomania after being courted by investors (or allowing himself to be confused by their contradictory conclusions and advice), the founder is not chasing money.
2) Instead of using precious cash to hire a firm of publicists before the product hits beta, he focuses on relationships and engagement.
3) Instead of using his PhD in computer science to throttle the one team member without technical credentials — that would be me — he entertains all questions, including the ones that some Valley CEOs find strange and useless.
4) Instead of bells and whistles, booths and bimbos, he’s focused on blogs and a beta-testing, to actually understand how we can do better.
And most important, instead of demanding an exaggerated spin on what we’re doing, he’s given me wide berth to articulate a business model around performance and member input, in plain language. To really make sure I’m grounded, he’s got me learning XML, doing bug reports, commenting on the interface and experimenting with other Web 2.0 services.
We’re learning from each other.
The founder and I discuss differentiation and buyer values all the time. We take them very seriously. He gives them the same level of emphasis as technical performance and reliability. They will be part of our startup’s story. The words we use to tell the story will capture how our technology will change the way people look at their content — not leave them dazed.
By having someone like me around to express how our technology relates to the market, the founder ensures that his point of view will resonate with the people using our tool. By my involvement with the technical aspects I can absorb, I see firsthand why the “uber-platform Internet concept” is old paradigm, old power structure, old funding and old marketing.
That’s why I call this la dolce startup. All we need now are Marcello and a Vespa.
Mary Trigiani works for foldier, Inc., now close to beta and introducing a Web-based tool for searching, aggregating, organizing and sharing personal content, whether it’s on a hard drive or on the Web. Mary also consults with established companies around the country. Visit her blog, About Brands, Players, Startups.