Entrepreneur

The start-up chronicles: It pays to be bull-headed

(Editor’s Note: The Start-up Chronicles is a weekly feature giving an inside view of the trials of a bootstrapped start-up – The Cost Savings Guy. CEO and founder Bruce Judson is also the author of “Go It Alone!: The Secret to Building A Successful Business on Your Own” and a senior faculty fellow at the Yale School of Management.)

Military analogies are oddly appropriate for startups. In both situations, failure is often not an option, while the odds against victory can be overwhelming. Before crossing the Alps, Hannibal is reported to have said, “We will either find a way or make one”. For today’s entrepreneur, that’s a good motto to keep in mind.

In the current economy, you often must accomplish objectives whether you have the cash in hand or not. This has created some innovative thinking from financially strapped startups.

This creativity can take many forms. In some cases, it can involve convincing providers to perform work for services in kind. Sometimes it involves awe-inspiring (but innovative) simplicity, such as recognizing an $80 a month service meets the same needs as a $500,000 custom proposal. And sometimes it’s as basic as challenging conventional wisdom.  In each case, though, the entrepreneurs simply never give up.

Personally, I like to assume that if I can imagine something, it exists in some form somewhere. The problem then is to find it – and to know it when I see it.

Most of my efforts involve Web-based services. As a consequence, I have often found that the low-cost solution to a seemingly insurmountable problem involves taking a Web service designed for one use and recognizing that, in fact, it will fulfill an entirely different need. Similarly, I have also found that combining two seemingly unrelated services can create an infrastructure that meets a need apparently unrelated to either of the two component services.

It’s not enough, I’ve found, to be absolutely committed to a goal. You also need to be open-minded and creative in the way you think about achieving it. This sometimes means sidestepping obstacles instead of forcefully pushing them aside.

Recently, I had a small win that occurred because I didn’t let my determination falter.  For The Cost Savings Guy I was certain that the elements of successful VOIP service for our target market involved (1) landline quality sound, (2) a low monthly cost with no contract and (3) a low cost, high-quality VOIP phone (a one-time expense for the user). The first two were clearly achievable. The final item, I was repeatedly told, was non-existent. Nonetheless, last week (after months of searching), I found a phone that met my price and performance specs exactly.

There were two important lessons I learned from this search. First, it’s important to recognize when it’s worth the time and energy to pursue a difficult objective.  (At the end of the day, only a few are.)  As I made calls and searched catalogues, I repeatedly questioned whether the effort should be such a priority. My consistent conclusion was that a low-priced phone could – for our target market – make the difference between the success or failure of our offering, so I kept on with the search.

Second, real determination also involves a heavy skepticism of the blockades you encounter. If you never dig into details, you will always be at the mercy of ‘experts’ who tell you something can’t be done.

Our target market is different than the typical VOIP phone user. For this reason, I suspect that many industry participants never focused on “my” lower cost phone.  In retrospect, I see my company is targeting a specialized niche, which requires us to reexamine accepted assumptions and use different criteria when assessing products and services.

Now, we face the harder task of proving that my product vision will, in fact, translate into sales. Nonetheless, I now know that any lack of success will not result because we did not have precisely the service package I envisioned at the outset.

One inevitable side benefit of this result is that I am energized for the effort ahead.

Photo by cindy47452 via Flickr


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