One thing I never imagined when I became an entrepreneur is that I'd acquire a deep appreciation for panel vans, especially the ones with small-business decals displayed on the sides. They always remind me of how important small and self-made businesses are, and inspire me in my own work. Their drivers are unexpected and valued peers.
Window installers, providers of cleaning services, HVAC repair guys, electricians, and, most of all, plumbers: These are people who have braved the sometimes fetid waters of startup life and actually built a business. Every time I see one of their vans, I feel encouraged. More important, I've begun to take notes from them.
Being a startup founder in San Francisco, I could, of course, choose from more techy peers as well--people with whom, on the surface at least, I share more in terms of education, vocation, and industry. My company is a software startup, after all, replete with most of the expected clichés, right down to the catered lunches and company-logo hoodies. But after a few years of rubbing elbows with tech bros and wannabe visionaries, I've found there's often more to learn from founders with ambitions less grandiose than changing the world. These folks are more concerned with keeping paychecks coming and putting gas in that van. These are entrepreneurs in the old-fashioned sense, who start a business to provide a better life for themselves and their families, rather than to make a killing in an IPO and have books written about them.
Once you start looking for them, you see these business owners all over the place, not just driving vans. They run the gamut from the neighbor who starts a day care center in her home to the dentist who moves to a new town and hangs out a shingle, hoping patients will start calling.
They are in many respects bigger risk takers than the Silicon Valley crowd. There's no fallback job at Dropbox or Facebook waiting for them if their company doesn't fill its next funding round; there's no one else's money on the line. On the contrary, these entrepreneurs put their careers and savings at risk every day. They know what it's like to face down real failure, the kind that comes with foreclosure and personal bankruptcy.
So what have I learned from plumbers? Three things, mainly:
First, it's essential that you treat your staff as apprentices, not just as employees. Your team is taking risks just like you--and their reward shouldn't be a mere shot at the brass ring. They are eager to learn everything they can. From the receptionist to the CFO, find out what your employees' dreams are and help them along the path they're on.
Second, make sure your company is doing something useful, even essential, for its customers. There are few services greater than making a broken toilet or clogged sink work again. If your company isn't providing something just as vital and fundamental to your customers' lives, then you may not be long for the startup world.
Third, remember that it's your name on the van. Your reputation is at stake, and it will be enhanced or suffer depending upon your efforts. If you own a new business, you can assume that pretty much nobody has ever heard of you, which means potential customers can go only on your character and record.
You may not be driving a van with a five-foot logo and your company's name on it around town (yet). But no matter how sexy a startup, all founders can learn from the people who do.