Startup Vignettes: Small Beginnings

Zechariah 4:10
“Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin, to see the plumb line in Zerubbabel’s hand.”

It isn’t often that a piece distilled from rough and raw business experiences, aimed at a tech startup audience, begins with a quotation from scripture. Nevertheless, it is what it is. As far as I’m concerned, “small beginnings” equals “traction”; and this is the core milestone that every startup entrepreneur or team must strive for, achieve, nurture, sustain, and then expand on.

However, at the very least — for context, I will provide a bit of background, and draw parallels to the reality of startup life and dynamics, as well as what we must embrace as truth (self-evident or not), irrespective of faith, creed, or disposition to either.

To paraphrase an account in the Judeo-Christian tradition, Zerubbabel was the inspired founder of a great startup venture (the Second Temple in Jerusalem — circa 520 BCE). He had access to the right networks and ecosystem (was a grandson of one of the last kings of Judah and governor of a Persian province), who together with his co-founder (the high priest Joshua — son of Jehozadak), and in the face of serious challenges — vested interests, incumbents, regulatory and other frictions (evil reports and efforts to frustrate their purpose), persevered to lay the foundations for a nearly 500-year-old enterprise, essentially by embracing “tractive” principles.

In achieving this feat, Zerubbabel and Joshua drew on their vision (passion and belief in God), put in sweat equity and personal capital (1,000 golden darics plus other contributions), to galvanize fervent support, devotion, and revenue from innovators and early-adopters (the first group of 42,360 Jews returning from Babylonian captivity), which validated product-market fit, and thus traction, all before even receiving any “funding”. By accounts, they were picky in who they worked with, even turning away subsequent investment offers (the Samaritans — good or otherwise — who offered to help), preferring to grow “organically”, despite setbacks and delays, in a way that eventually catapulted the venture to storied success.

Adapting, leveraging, and correctly sequencing the narration of how that epoch was “launched” is fundamental to understanding what founders (especially in infrastructure-constrained environments like Nigeria — where I am from) must learn. Indeed, while learning to think introspectively, we must study the Zero to One opportunities that are in abundance around us, but which require higher levels of thinking, observation, and vision to decipher, and even more applied innovation and wisdom to execute.

To be honest, I completely misunderstood and underestimated the maximum tractive force or effort needed to launch a “successful” startup, but the lessons learned from years in entrepreneurial wilderness are now bearing fruit. The goal should never be to launch a “successful startup”; the secret is NOT to despise small beginnings in solving validated pain-points and delivering exceptional value to real paying customers. Launching a startup that IS “successful” then becomes a fait accompli.

To distill the essence of this secret, all entrepreneurs need street-level lessons in “micro-traction” (apologies to Yele Bademosi: within oft-overlooked niche markets, in ways that deliver essential value and with means to capture market dominance, whose ONLY validation is paying customers. From the murky but sustainable confines of this “beach head”, they can extend their runway to deliver broader exponential value, in exchange for increasing revenue.

HITCH Video Hotspots — Ready, Set, Traction…

In a nutshell: find, focus on, and consistently engage real customers, distill what pains them, assemble the right team to think creatively about solving it at a significantly higher level (10X magnitude) that relegates any competition to obsolescence (and don’t fall for the fallacy that you have none), and then de-risk their downsides to make them pay you a premium (above your costs) for it. To measure and prove this, stay paranoid and humble, listen more and speak less, develop, then keep track of and learn from real (not vanity) metrics, milestones, and deliverables, whose sole optimization is aimed at those customers (not investors or strategic partners or the public). At THAT point, and only that point, does scaling into a “successful startup”, whatever you want that to mean, become possible or even make the remotest sense.

Specifically, founders operating in Africa MUST resist the allure of the traditional hockey-stick tech startup model; it is a misnomer in our neck of the woods. We must introspectively paraphrase Zechariah (he of scriptural prophetic fame) and Thiel (he of PayPal mafia fame), in believing and professing that the ONLY “plumb line” that matters, the ONLY indicator that should matter to all Zero-to-One entrepreneurial opportunities (no matter how grandiose, visionary, or passionate), is this devotion to validated small beginnings. Unlike Nas, all you need is one beach head; which beach head it is, must be decided as strategically as the Normandy landings were, in order to avoid a pyrrhic victory.

Beyond the startup glitz and glamour, beyond the doe-eyed passion and fervour, further even than the loneliness, pain, and insanity, right around when the delusions begin to morph at the speed of light into a psychedelic haze or abstract latticing of reality, founders must understand this. Before you get to the point of “…kai, who send me message?”, when pride and ego trap you from admitting your errors and retracing your steps, it is better to learn this secret to improve your chances of survival. In any case, do so before you sell your village farmland or your father’s yam barn to start the next Facebook.

This isn’t cliché, this is unadulterated truth that is often misconstrued, and is almost always misunderstood. Forget building the tech and product first, start by humbly seeking out and talking to customers to find this traction in a structured scientific way. ONLY customers matter. Forget investors and strategic partners. Devote your initial imagination and creativity to figuring out who your customers are, what they want, and how much they will pay for it. Get them to indicate this willingness and ability to pay before writing a single line of code. And if you learn something new that requires it, for goodness sake, pivot, fast.

Yes, “our body dey hot”, and so the work MUST begin “now-now”. I’ll agree, but ONLY when this plumb line is firmly in the grasp of those founders, who along with their co-travellers, and despite the challenges the startup journey presents, “…must set forth at dawn”, as Soyinka exhorts.

For more insights on becoming a “master tractioneer”, finding and grasping your plumb line, and stepping off into entrepreneurial abyss, please take ample doses of lessons from these elemental Students’ Companion handbooks. Studying and practicing concepts from these “bibles” is just the beginning, and they should always be handy for reference and recalibration of said plumb line. Ultimately, however, the customer IS king. In the final analysis, Zerubbabel proved that much.

· Running Lean — Ash Maurya

· Crossing the Chasm — Geoffrey A. Moore

· Zero to One — Peter Thiel with Blake Masters

· The Startup Owner’s Manual — Steve Blank and Bob Dorf

· The Challenger Sale — Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson

· Tribe of Mentors — Timothy Ferriss