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Having founded Hearsay Social after graduating from Stanford, Clara Shih has also written a best selling book and sits on the board of Starbucks. Here is her advice.

In Silicon Valley, where I live, there is a sense that anyone with an idea is now starting a company.

However, an idea is just the start.

Building a business requires obsessive focus and execution.

The entrepreneurial journey is far from easy.

When I chose to leave Salesforce.com five years ago to found Hearsay Social, it was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made.

Transitioning from what was a comfortable job within a big company to launch a startup meant summoning every ounce of courage I had.

However, I have never looked back.

For those of you considering making the same leap, I can assure you there are few things in life as rewarding. I am pleased to share with you a few of the important lessons I have learned along the way.

I hope they will prove useful to you.

Success means sacrifice. Particularly early on.

You have to remember that if a startup succeeds, it does so against the odds. In the beginning, you are reliant purely on the talents and resources of yourself and your founding team.

Your competition, by default, is bigger, further down the line and more established than you.

To defeat them, you have to swim against the tide – and that requires hard work and long hours. There is no other way.

Our first year in particular was marked by long days and long nights. We regularly pulled all-nighters in my living room, and when we moved into our first office, we often went home at three in the morning or stayed the night.

Sick days or vacations were not an option.

I regret having to miss friends’ birthdays. In fact, for the first couple years, I stopped socializing altogether, other than with my coworkers.

Having transitioned from a big company, there was also a financial sacrifice.

I had become accustomed to the paycheck and benefits that I was previously earning, and had to adapt quickly to not having a salary for an undefined period of time.

One of the early investors in Hearsay was Jon Sakoda, General Partner at New Enterprise Associates (NEA). Many people describe building a startup as a marathon.

I prefer his analogy of one relentless sprint after another after another.

Of course, the specific areas of sacrifice are different for each entrepreneur, but what is guaranteed is that there is always sacrifice of one form or another to defy the odds and create something where there was previously nothing.

Early partnerships are key. Of all types.

Partnerships in startups take multiple forms.

You must develop the ability to evaluate, attract, and build strong working relationships with cofounder(s), early employees, and investors. Not to mention customers.

That judgement can often be the difference between success and failure.

I co-founded Hearsay Social with a longtime friend and Stanford classmate, Steve Garrity.

I consider myself incredibly fortunate to be able to do so.

We were both first-time entrepreneurs, and having a strong foundation of trust between us has helped tremendously.

We have been able to bounce around ideas and talk through big decisions and differing perspectives with one another.

Our decade-long friendship allowed us to debate, sometimes disagree and of course reassure one another through the inevitable emotional rollercoasters we faced.

The early hires you make will also play a fundamental part in determining the fate of your business.

Our first employee was Chris Andrew.

He has subsequently played numerous roles across the company and recently moved to London to launch and run Hearsay Social in Europe.

You must be aware that the founding team and early employees establish the company culture.

Finally, raising capital means partnering with investors and adding board members to your team.

If you decide to go down this route, ensure to choose extremely wisely. It really does matter a great deal.

If you can find the right investors, you will gain true partners who support you throught the inevitable ups and downs you will face.

A good investor adds far more than just capital, and can single-handedly impact upon the growth and outcome of your business.

Our first investor was Bryan Schreier of Sequoia Capital.

He made a bet on us for our Series A when almost no one else would.

He has since been played a huge part in hiring key executives and technical talent, as well as helping define and iterate upon our product strategy.

Prior to building a sales team, Jon Sakoda was willing to roll up his sleeves and help us close early customers and understand the financial services vertical, which is now a core focus area for our business.

The need for strong partners and employees persists throughout the life of a company, but it is especially important in the early stages. Those initial decisions are crucial in their own right but also are compounded as the company grows.

As one of our investors describes it; A-players tend to hire other A-players. B-players hire C-players, and it goes downhill from there.

Obsess over customer success, and the rest will follow

It is becoming increasingly common for companies to talk about customer success.

It is far rarer for a company to put the customer first, above all else, at all times.

One of my proudest moments for Hearsay occurred earlier this year. The CEO of a Fortune 200 customer spoke at our January kickoff event and said he views Hearsay as a partner, rather than a vendor.

That partnership is earned over time and is a fundamental part of our success.

In practice, enabling customer success has evolved significantly as Hearsay has developed.

In the early days, customer success meant Steve and I providing our personal cell phone numbers to customers.

It meant pulling all-nighters to fix a bug in the code if we were required to.

Thankfully, we now have a global customer support team with a 1-800 number, alongside quality assurance and site reliability teams.

At 200 employees today, just as when there were five of us, every employee feels personally accountable to each one of our customers.

Successful companies, from Nordstrom and Zappos to Apple and Zendesk, share a focus on doing right by the customer and delighting her or him.

If you obsess over customer success, or potential customer success from the start, the rest will work itself out.

 

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