What I wish someone would've told me about building a company: 6 Austin tech leaders weigh in

by Kelly O'Halloran
October 13, 2016

Life would be so much easier if we knew what was on the path ahead of us, right?

These six Austin founders share what they wish they would've known before launching and leading a company, reflecting on some of the challenges they've faced and weighing in on if it ever gets simpler. 

 

Alfredo Ramirez, CEO and co-founder

Launched in 2007, Vyopta provides data analytics solutions to large enterprises to improve video and web collaboration.

What are the top three things you wish you had known beforehand?

1. I wish I had known about the importance and value of inbound marketing.
 
2. In recruiting, I learned that the best people to add to a young early stage company were those who have had success and who have also faced adversity in their professional careers and demonstrated being a valued team player. These people have proven to have a greater desire to succeed with a team. They have also typically demonstrated greater passion in GSD (aka “get stuff done”).

3. Building a great B2B software product requires discipline and creativity. Business users use fun, useful, and beautiful consumer software and now they are looking for that same experience with tools that help them do their jobs.

What has been the biggest challenge since launch?

The biggest challenge is to deliver a simple enterprise video/UC monitoring/analytics solution that IT users can evaluate, purchase and deploy on their own with minimal support from Vyopta.

Has it gotten easier?

As we build our team, it is easier to not have to focus on the day-to-day details since we have empowered others to do so.  
 
Things that are harder:
 
1. It is challenging to build and maintain a great company culture that unlocks the full potential of everyone as we grow the company.  Also, it is important that all team members adopt the core values that define our culture. 

2. It is hard at a growing company to get the balance right — making sure we have great team members who are ready to give 100 percent, while also ensuring they have time to refresh themselves to avoid burnout.  I am proud to say we have very low turnover because that balance is really important to us.  We want our team doing their best work every day, and it is vital to continually challenge the team at all levels to achieve our ambitious goals and make sure we are all growing as individuals.

 

Erine Gray, founder and CEO

Aunt Bertha, founded in 2010, connects people in their time of need with a universal online directory of social service organizations. 

What are the top three things you wish you had known beforehand?

1. Superman is not coming: No investor or perfect hire is really going to take all the obligations off of you and launch you into a new stratosphere. So much falls to you as the leader and CEO. And that doesn't stop. It grows. 
 
2. It takes a lot longer than you expected: getting the product to where you want it, raising money, hiring people, closing contracts. They all take longer than you anticipate. 
 
3. How much this can help the world. I would have started earlier.

What has been the biggest challenge since launch?

Having my hands in everything. Given what our company focuses on (SaaS in the social services space) and my background (programming, social services, management), I have always had to play major roles in all elements of our business. This makes it extremely hard to get out of playing a major role in those elements! 

Has it gotten easier? 

Even though we keep making big strides and we keep advancing the business in significant ways, things for sure get harder. The organization is larger and thus more complicated. From strategic plans, to nimbleness, to financials, everything is just another degree more complicated. The key factor to overcome this for us has been making good management and department head hires. 
 
 

John Price, CEO

Vast merges real-time personalized analytics of local market trends with massive inventory and relevant data from the automotive, real estate and travel industries to support consumers. The company started in 2001, and Price joined as CEO in 2010. 

What are the top three things you wish you had known beforehand?

1. Really understanding what "focus" means.You hear people say it all of the time, but you don't really know. When you start a company, you start thinking of how to chase revenue, but revenue is the enemy of focus. What I’ve learned is that it doesn’t mean only focusing and doing one thing, it means focusing your key resources on the key item that you are betting on is going to matter. 

2. Learn the dynamics of a board's role and what each board member cares individually about. It doesn’t make the boards bad, they’re just different companies with their own investment funds and firms. I actually went into this job believing that somehow I had a new team with the board. That’s not true.

3. You don’t know anything abut commercial real estate, and it is going to be one of your biggest problems. You’ll need space from day one to the end. The way we see how space works is completely contrary to what you need in a growing, shrinking startup.

You’re sitting across the table from someone who got an "A" in sales negotiation, not math like you. It’s a big percentage of your cost. And then you’re locked in, it’s crazy stressful and you don’t know anything about it. Especially in a place like Austin where space is a premium. So, you really, really need a partner to go the long road with you in commercial real estate that you can trust, because you’re not going to understand their world.

What has been the biggest challenge since launch?

It’s a constant struggle between focusing on growth versus focusing on profitability. It's a balancing act, and most CEOs live in the middle of the extreme profit side or the extreme growth side.

Has it gotten easier? 

No. it hasn’t gotten it easier, but it’s gotten more fun. It's one of those things that the stuff that used to stress me out just makes me laugh now. I can tell when things aren't going to go well, but I can laugh because I know what it is. It hasn’t gotten easier because as you grow, you haven’t seen things before and the market changes. Every six to 18 months the entire landscape of the market changes.

You're always fearful. Every CEO has read "The Innovator's Dilemma" by Clayton Christensen. One day, you can literally be the market leader, and tomorrow, a six-person startup can put you out of business. 

Tech is the only industry that ever existed like that. It’s unique. You either are going to stay at the bleeding edge, or you’re going to die. It never gets easier. It only gets easier if you’re signing up for your eventual demise. But it does get more fun. 

 

Eric Klasson, CEO and co-founder

In 2012, Snaptrends joined the Austin tech community to help organizations of all industries leverage social media conversations and posts whenever and wherever they occur to inform decision making and use in strategy building. 

What are the top three things you wish you had known beforehand?

1. Coming from a large corporate setting, the ability to have a tangible impact on the culture of the company as a whole is limited. When you found and grow a company, every hire matters and can strongly influence the company’s success and culture, so it’s important to invest in the right people.  Snaptrends has built a workforce of happy and talented employees.

2. The importance of the location of our office, which is ironic considering we are a location-based social media company. Austin is a tight job market, and local traffic is a never ending issue. Given that we are in a candidate’s job market and many factors play into a candidate’s decision when accepting a job, having a fun, centrally located office is really important.
 
3. While I realize it would have been impossible to know, I wish I had known the massive trajectory of social media. It would have been great to know which social media channels would take off and become transformative aspects of our daily lives and which ones would fall by the wayside. That kind of knowledge would have made it easier to build out social network ingestion that matters most to our customers.

What has been the biggest challenge since launch?

The biggest challenge we face is the fact that social media is relevant to every organization worldwide. The global market for social media insight solutions is billions of dollars. Due to the variety of organizations we cater to building data feeds, visualizations and predictive insights that address diverse client needs is a balancing act. Our success is all about finding equilibrium between the future of the product that we envision and diverse customer requirements. It’s a challenge we embrace and have navigated successfully.

Has it gotten easier?

The job has gotten easier, primarily because of my strong leadership and investor team. We are fortunate to have one of the top engineering teams in the U.S., and our sales and marketing group is the best I have ever worked with in my career. Pulling it all together is our People Operations leader that is a local rock star. And our investors are experienced technology executives that totally get software and advise me on a regular basis. Also, when you truly love what you do, it makes coming to work each day a pleasure.

 

Madison Wickham, founder and CEO

Grandex owns and operates a catalogue of media and commerce platforms including Total Frat Move, Total Sorority Move, Post Grad Problems, Rowdy Gentleman, Lady Clothing, and Man Outfitters. The company launched in 2010.

What are the top three things you wish you had known beforehand?

1. A better understanding of business finance
 
2. The importance of networking and building relationships with mentors and advisors
 
3. A really good corporate attorney

 

What has been the biggest challenge since launch?

Our biggest challenge has been prioritization of where to focus our time and resources. Our business is unique in that we operate several distinct revenue models. Figuring out how to focus on the right projects and how best to allocate our people and resources is an ongoing challenge.

Has it gotten easier? 

In my experience, building and running a business never gets easy. There are periods of time where things may calm down a bit, but difficult challenges will always emerge. It's a never ending battle and as an entrepreneur, you have to embrace that. Check out the book by Ryan Holiday called "The Obstacle Is The Way," it's the best philosophy book out there for anyone trying to do big things in business.
 
 
 

Gard Mayer, VP of sales and founder

Founded in 2006, Invodo builds data-driven video programs to help retailers sell, brands deliver product value and consumers shop.

What are the top three things you wish you had known beforehand?

1. If you are going to start a company with other people make sure you really know your partners. Starting a company is like getting married. It can be beautiful if everything works as planned, but it can get really ugly if it doesn't. You need to know how your partners will act in stressful situations? Are they accountable? Can they be trusted? Do you share the same values? Do you actually like them and most of all do you like hanging out with them because you're going to have to spend a lot of time together.   

I knew my brother very well. We are best friends, we grew up together, shared the same values and pretty much see the world the same way. I knew I could trust him and I've seen him in stressful situations.
 
However, the other founder was someone who had been a vendor for another company I owned. On the face of it, he seemed like a good guy who was smart and wanted to do something "big". However, as one year turned into three, and after we'd relocated our families and raised money from VC's, we realized that our differences of opinion and values that at first seemed manageable became quite the opposite when we started to face real challenges with our business.  
 
Ultimately the break up of the co-founders (in 2008) was so bad that our business was almost unsalvageable and it caused our investors to make some pretty extreme, but understandable, decisions, which included removing him from the company.
 
2. Avoid giving up control of your company at all costs, which is another way of saying, "raise money when you need it least and have the most leverage."  
 
3. Be ready to pivot at a moment's notice.  The truth is that Invodo actually started off as Inpodo which stood for Instructional Portable Downloads for iPod. However, when we figured out that the Video iPod was being updated by Apple on a weekly basis and breaking the code we'd developed to download our videos into the iPod, we realized we needed a different idea. At this point, we had developers and UI/UX experts on the team that knew how to handle and deliver video. My brother and I also had a company which sold into online and brick and mortar retailers. We knew that our products weren't selling well online and we knew that video was a better way to communicate what made our products different from our competitors. So we called up a number of our online retailers and asked them if we could run a test for placing a product video on their product description pages. They agreed, the results were great and Invodo was born. If we hadn't been willing to pivot to a totally different idea, Invodo would have never existed.
 

What has been the biggest challenge since launch?

Looking back 10 years ago, I never would have predicted how hard it would be to manage growth and the inevitable cultural changes that occur. It's so important to establish a culture that can evolve as you grow, but still maintain the core tenants (or soul) of the original founder's vision.

In my opinion creating a great culture is all about setting clear company goals, clear individual goals, transparency as to how each employee is contributing and then giving your employees the autonomy to do what they were hired to do.  

Has it gotten easier? 

Has it gotten any easier to create a great culture that can withstand the changes that occur with growth or contraction? Well, I'd say our company had to make a major pivot which was very difficult and very painful, but ultimately the right thing to do in order to create a great culture again. It started with the introduction of a new CEO who made it very clear by his actions that he was putting our employees (our family really) above all other priorities. He also made some difficult decisions around our product offerings and changed the company's focus from being a hybrid technology services company to an agency model that was focused on creating product content in the form of videos and 3D. With that change, we had to re-org and let some very dear friends go in the process, but it was done with empathy and caring and I think everyone understood that it was what had to happen. In the end, it seems that we made the right moves for the company and for the culture. We have a very clear direction as a company, our employees have very clear goals and everyone knows how they contribute to Invodo's success.  It wasn't easy but we are definitely on the right track.  

I believe an entrepreneur's goal should be to build a great business, that provides a great value to its customers and provides an awesome culture for its employees.  Employees want to understand the company's goals, they want to know how they are being measured and they want to know how they contribute to the company's success.
 
 
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
 
Images provided by companies, LinkedIn and Shutterstock.
 
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