Entrepreneurship is personal. It can be a lonely road. And starting any new venture is risky. Doing it in the water sector especially takes grit. #Waterpreneurship is not for everyone. For those undertaking the journey, there are abundant resources to help along the way, although most don’t capture the level of intensity necessary to move an idea into reality.
If you are interested in building a successful water startup, start with ImagineH2O’s program and Tom’s post on the same topic.
For two decades I have helped organizations grow and navigate the water industry.
I have started a few consulting companies, beginning with a water rights consulting firm in 2000.
I have coached young water professionals through their professional journeys.
I have sold Big Data and Water IoT solutions to some of the largest water utilities in North America, building enduring relationships along the way.
12 months ago, I was confronted with a choice to make larger impact. So, I again entered the entrepreneurial landscape by launching a water software startup.
This has been a year of #startuplife and #startuplearning. Here are 12 of the lessons learned over 12 months since the idea of AQUAOSO captured my heart. (Interested in a deeper dive? Join the tribe and we’ll share additional lessons in the weeks ahead.)
1: Just Start
Once an idea has taken hold and won’t let go, there are two choices we can make. Take the journey or don’t.
I am a huge fan of Joseph Campbell – I studied his work intensely while completing my undergraduate degree in religious studies (a different story altogether.) People who know me well, understand this affinity to Campbell’s work – the arc of which can be seen in most of my projects, leadership coaching and even our company brand. When the Hero’s Journey calls, what are you going to do?
In my case – it began with the decision to just start. AQUAOSO was merely an idea, without a name. Consciously making the decision to start and acting on that decision began moving wheels in ways I never thought possible. It also meant my job at the time had to End.
2: Show Up
Once the decision to start was made, showing up became critical. For myself, for our team, for our customers and for my family. Showing up builds momentum. It keeps the dialogue going. It builds relationships.
For the self, showing up keeps me attuned to how I am feeling and regulates the ups and downs that are part of the startup cycle.
For the team, showing up keeps us all aligned and pointed in the right direction. It helps us all self-correct when necessary.
For our customers, showing up is half the battle. In our business, building trust is critical. When we pay attention to our customers we build strong relationships and learn about our customer’s real needs. How can we build an experience that WOW’s our customers if we don’t show up for them?
For family, showing up maintains healthy relationships and builds stronger bonds. Showing up means being there mentally as much as physically. My family was here before, and will be there long after, my business. They keep me grounded in my WHY*!
3: Stay healthy
It takes major horsepower to keep a startup moving forward. Momentum is easy to lose and being told no over and over again is exhausting. I had to build a more robust routine to stay fit – mentally, physically, spiritually.
I mediate daily, using the Headspace app to keep me honest. I started swimming more often, and was able to train for the 2.2 mile Kona Ironman swim which I completed last month. I use the MySwimPro app** to keep me on track.
When I get out of my routine because things get busy (or I get lazy), within a few days it shows. I become irritable, unable to focus and unhappy. My stay healthy routine keeps me sane under the pressure of building a business.
4: Know when to spend
You know the saying – it takes money to make money. As a startup, sometimes all you have is time – and the saying is just as true – It takes time to make time. Spending the right amount of money and time early on can pay dividends in the future. Knowing how and when to spend is the tricky part.
I would have spent (invested) more money, earlier to go faster. It was a hard lesson. As a bootstrapped company, I wanted to get things accomplished without spending the cash – so instead I spent the time.
In hindsight, investing more money earlier in parts of our business would have accelerated some of our learning, and saved us precious time.
5. No one cares
Really. No one gives a shit about your idea or business early on. Except maybe your family and friends, but they are suspect. So, put on your big kid pants – it’s going to be lonely for a while, convincing customers, employees, investors, press, partners, and anyone you think should care that they should care.
When will they care? When it’s something that someone really wants/needs/will use.
6. Experts can be wrong
and opinions are worthless. We spent months speaking with water right experts around the country, and they all had an opinion for us. Most of the time, the expert opinions were contrary to one another.
Had we built a business around their opinions, we never would have found traction. What’s more important is what lies in the white space between their knowledge. If you want to transform a space, realize, most of the current experts won’t know how.
Take their knowledge for what it is – not necessarily for what it will be.
(But what about their advice? Paul Singh constantly reminds our Valley Ventures cohort not to ask for it. Here’s why.)
7. Let your roots grow deep
Honestly, my dad taught me this one and the next early on in life. When it comes to a startup, knowing where your roots should grow might take some time.
I am a water guy – never thought we’d be an AgTech company. But here we are – with a beachhead market smack in the middle of California Agriculture.
Once we realized this is where our roots needed to be, we continued building on our customer discovery program. What did we find? Customers. More importantly, customers who care.
Complexity kills. Cut deeply***. Until it can not be cut further without being recognizable. Complex messaging, complex product, complex org charts, complex cap tables, complex whatever. Cut it down.
Water rights are complex, and we make them easy.
It’s why we have customers and why we will be successful. If you are in a complex space (let’s face it, most water related business are) it’s your job to make it less so.
In other words, Keep It Simple Stupid.
9. Execute against milestones
Without having a milestone to manage against, you’ll just keep running. It’s important to take the time to make sure you are running in the right direction. Early on, we did not have a milestone beyond $1M in revenue – knowing that was a few years away. Within three months, though, we realized we needed some interim milestones to manage against – ones we could reach and celebrate success (or change direction).
Having spent more than a decade operationalizing strategic plans, I knew the importance of this. But knowing and doing are different. It took a while (and a few misdirects) to implement in our own business. Since setting additional milestones in place (large and small) we have accelerated our learning and growth.
10. There is no perfect pitch
Maybe there is and I have yet to find it. I don’t know anyone that has. The pitch changes based on audience – and as we learn more about our business. I continue to hope that a single, perfect pitch will materialize. Until then, we’ll continue iterating and focus on solving for our customer’s pains.
11. Building a product is easy
Building the right product is hard. It takes time to get the right product/market fit. We had to iterate and change directions a few times. We’ll continue to iterate and adjust our product as we identify what our customers really want – and are willing to pay for.
I’ve seen too many founders, especially in water, fall in love with their product/solution.
In doing so, they miss an amazing opportunity to build the right product/ solution/ experience for their customers.
12. What got me here won’t get me there
I am reminded daily that learning is the job of a startup CEO. Startups in particular are about learning and executing. Everything that got me here won’t necessarily get me to the next level.
Learn to level up!
The Baker’s Dozen
One of the most important lessons I have learned over my career is that great teams will out execute great individuals – build a culture that supports great teams. I was fortunate to build an excellent advisory board early on. I was also fortunate to find excellent team members who care about our work to build a resilient water future. People drive culture. Culture drives cohesion. Never underestimate the importance of people and culture! They are critical to executing and planning a well designed strategy. That’s one thing we can not afford to F*ck up!
Learn more about our work at AQUAOSO: check out our whitepaper.
If you want a deeper dive on our lessons learned, Join the tribe and we’ll share additional lessons in the weeks ahead.
*Want to know my WHY? Grab a copy of our award winning book, Damned If We Don’t! Ideas for accelerating change around water.
**Full disclosure, I invested in @MySwimPro’s last crowdfunding campaign – it’s the best swimming app out there.
***Legal agreements may need to be more complex. Good paper makes for good friends.