The 22 Lessons for Any Startup CEO. How to Deal with Customers, Product, Engineers, Family and More
Is it possible to achieve the pole position on the market while having precisely zero funding from investors?
Surely it is possible, as evidenced by the story of Patrick Campbell, founder and CEO of PriceIntelligently (now ProfitWell). Back in 2012, Campbell has founded a pricing analysis startup that helps SaaS companies figure out their pricing strategies.
On the 6th anniversary of the startup, Campbell decided to share some lessons learnt while building a high growth company. I stumbled upon this captivating Twitter thread and, long story short, the CEO of ProfitWell agreed to publish this thread on Netguru’s blog.
We’ve come a long way since the 18 hour days of me just sitting in a room alone and getting help from @markitecht and @aaronwhite. Here are some lessons I’ve learned that reinforce or buck conventions.
To be clear, we're not perfect yet, and still have a lot of work constantly committing to the below in our culture. Yet, it's been our way of building a high growth company with 45 folks and $0 in funding.
Patrick Campbell, founder and CEO of ProfitWell
22 Lessons Learnt. How to Deal with Customers, Family, Competitors and More
1. Customer funding = oxygen
Nothing sharpens your focus to a bleeding edge like resource constraints. Ironically, I don't know if we'd be #1 in the market without being the only non-funded company in our space. As my brother in arms @aaronwhite says - restriction is an expression.
2. The product is everything
If retention/NPS are low, prioritize fixing it. Markets are too dense with choices to brute force growth. We have a free product with NPS over 60 and <1% annual churn on the paid side. We over-indexed on the product before scaling to get the fundamentals right.
3. Hire upper quartile engineers
We ingest 10x more data than our market for a *free* product, and our AWS bills are dirt cheap, and we have 0 uptime or performance issues without a single person full-time dedicated to infrastructure. Clean, efficient code scales itself.
4. Limit being bougie
Live personally poor as long as possible. It's not about the money, it's about mitigating distractions. Company-wise, keep as much money "on the field" as possible. Splurge on anything that gets, optimizes, or retains high-performing team members.
5. Hire full-functioned adults and treat them as partners
Age is just a number and doesn’t matter, but maturity is a whole different story. It’s a two-way street though, because you need to set up minimal, directional parameters and get out of the way.
6. Middle-management is the bedrock of operational effectiveness
Read everything Andy Grove has ever published 2-3 times and invest heavily in training, alignment, diversity, and health of your middle-management and exec core.
7. Ruthlessly focus on a high-performance team
You're not a family, you're a cabal, a pro sports team, etc. If you feel you need to micromanage someone or scope down a role for someone to succeed, it's not fair to them or the team to keep them around.
8. Servant leadership must be your default
Your company will not succeed because of you, it will succeed because of your team. Find ways to channel your ego always to be the steward and servant to your team. You SERVE your team.
9. Feedback should be non-negotiable
Problems only get bigger. Foster a culture where feedback is constant. Remember though - not everyone receives feedback best in the same way. Be in tune with your team and their preferences here.
10. Over-communication and expectation setting are a must
You "get it" because it's in your head. A high-functioning team knows exactly what's going on and what's important. Plus, team members crave information. Give it to them 10x more than you think you need to.
11. Don’t average your culture
In my pursuit of wanting everyone to like me, I tried to hedge our values and policies to please everyone. This was a terrible decision. Diversity is crucial to success, but not one of your core values.
12. Spiritual leaders are important
I’m a statistician and economist, not a pastor or psychologist. Find someone who over-indexes in heart and soul. For us that’s @peterthekid. We would be nowhere without him being here the past 5+ years.
13. Be the heavyweight
Being insecure, I always assume we're not good enough and that we shouldn't beat our chests. If you're a heavyweight though (as this team and product are), then don't shy from telling the world you're the best. Just make sure your product backs it up.
14. You need to do everything, but the order of operations is important
Ruthlessly prioritize, but spend time calculating what activities in which order are going to have the highest impact on the metrics that matter for your stage. Then execute.
15. You only get so many at-bats, but it's more than one
Prospects can easily be revisited, so don't burn bridges in your marketing and sales experience. Make sure you have prospect fit (features, requirements, etc) before you reach out again.
16. Embrace the haters
Competitors call me "low class", "spiteful", and "thirsty", and people I've given tons of free help turn around and gossip about me. Use baseless accusations and personal attacks as fuel. It's a sign you need to get better or that you're getting to them.
17. Use the most charitable interpretation principle
Most frustrations/anger/outbursts are coming from a good place. Problems get solved quicker if you assume that and work to get to the core issue. Purge people from your team who aren't coming from a good place.
18. Find someone who understands
Even your closest loved one won't understand what you're going through. That's ok. Just find someone who does. I'd be nothing without counsel from @csavage @brendan @unsalted @mbrindley @nickfrancis @natalienagele @cnagele. #TeamChatham
19. Be blunt with your loved ones
@jhart3 is the love of my life, but I was very clear up front that the next N years would be bumpy timewise with the business. We attacked this time deficiency early in our relationship to make sure we started from a great foundation.
20. Find a business partner, commit to marrying them
I was net-net doing this thing solo for too long. Nothing unlocked our potential like @peterthekid and @facundoc. They are the yins to my yang and challenge me daily. You need someone who is in your deepest circle of trust.
21. Most things are an act of will
As a founder, your job is to will things into existence as quickly as possible. If you don't know what motivates you, then you shouldn't be a founder, because an incredible amount of will is required to even make an attempt at succeeding.
22. Sacrifice yourself
This company is my life. In "work-life balance" culture, we forget that building something industry changing takes your life. For those of you out there swinging for the fences, stop apologizing for sacrificing yourself on the altar of ambition.
This is a guest post by Patrick Campbell, founder and CEO of PriceIntelligently (now ProfitWell), a pricing analysis company based in Boston.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Netguru.