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STARTUP

They Grow Up So Quickly. Or Else They Fail

There comes a time when a start-up needs to make a conscious effort to mature. Here's how to do it.
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I just got back from vacation with my family, which includes both a 30-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son. Only 11 years separates these two, but in terms of their understanding of the world, it might as well be a hundred years.

It was fascinating to observe. And, naturally, I saw it through my start-up glasses.

In start-up language, my son is clearly at the concept or seed stage. To wit: 

  • He views problems and challenges in black-and-white terms: This works. That is stupid.
  • Other players in his world have very clear roles and value, and are very much like him.
  • His knowledge is perfect with regard to what is important to him. (To put it another way, he is confident that what he doesn’t know, he doesn’t need to know.)
  • The tasks that are necessary for his advancement are straightforward (study for this test, do the laundry) and the time frame is usually defined in hours or days.

My son’s world is like the world of many of the company founders who come through the Triangle Startup Factory: small, easily defined, and well ordered. Good things can happen in that environment—a young man can figure out what he is capable of, and so can a young company. But you don’t want to get stuck there. If you don’t expand your world, you’ll get left behind pretty quickly.

My daughter is definitely not at the seed stage—she is probably more like a Series B entity. She has a family of her own, works full time, and is closing in on an advanced degree. This is her life: 

  • She fights for her goals on multiple fronts (family, business, professional development).
  • She deals with a wide diversity of personalities (children, boss, peers, husband, professors).
  • She continually seeks and processes information from multiple sources. 
  • She balances short-term and long-term challenges in order to meet a larger set of goals.

 So how do you get your company from my son’s stage to my daughter’s? 

  1. Find advisers and mentors who will define the bigger world for you. I’m talking about people who are not like you or the members of your team.
  2. Develop a systematic and regular way for these advisers to test your position on major business assumptions.
  3. Put your advisers and/or board members to work on your personal business maturity.
  4. Find a peer group where it is safe to ask questions and listen to their analysis of you. Give as well as receive.

That’s how a business grows up. Now, perhaps you’re asking yourself whether it’s time for your business to take the step. I’d say you just answered your own question.

Last updated: Jan 10, 2013

CHRIS HEIVLY | Columnist | Managing Director

Chris Heivly was a co-founder of MapQuest (which sold to AOL for $1.2 billion), sole managing director of 77 Capital (a $25 million venture fund), and an executive at five software companies. Currently, he is one of two managing directors of The Startup Factory, a seed investment fund making 10 to 14 new investments per year. A national writer and speaker about startups and startup communities, Heivly is also the founder of the Big Top Job Fair.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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