Brad Feld’s Startup Advice: Your Company Is Your Product; Get People to Do the Right Thing

“You will have meltdowns on a regular basis. You will have those moments. Make sure you have people you can talk to when you have those moments.”

That was Brad Feld, the tech entrepreneur-turned-venture-capitalist, on Friday afternoon, speaking to a room of Boston and New York entrepreneurs and angel investors, at an event organized by Silicon Valley Bank. The setting was the Microsoft NERD center in Kendall Square, Cambridge, MA. Feld was talking about the experiences that all founders (especially CEOs) go through with their companies.

Feld is the co-founder of Boulder, CO-based Foundry Group and TechStars, the seed-stage startup accelerator with programs in Boulder, Boston, Seattle, and New York. He relates very well to early-stage tech entrepreneurs, because he’s been there and done that himself. In his typical style, Feld spoke casually (and candidly) about the challenges of building a company. None of it was particularly earth-shattering, but it’s interesting to revisit these sorts of tips every once in a while, because different things jump out at you at different times.

Feld’s advice boiled down to two things: products and people.

1. “Be obsessed about your product.”

“The most important thing to focus on, early in the life of your company, is your product. In year two, it’s your product. In year 20, it’s your product,” he said. “If you focus on your product, most of your other problems will go away.”

But he has a broader definition of product—it’s not just the software you release, or your technology, or even your interface with customers. “The whole of the company becomes the product,” he said. “The whole lifecycle of what you do.”

That means entrepreneurs should be totally passionate about what they are building—not just starting a company to be their own boss, say—and they should be true to themselves. Feld admitted that with his first company, he got bored after four years. “I didn’t love the thing I was doing,” he said. (He sold it after seven years.)

2. “You cannot motivate someone.”

“The idea that a CEO can motivate people is a fallacy. All you can do is create an environment where people are motivated or not,” he said. Companies will make bad hires—talented people who aren’t a good cultural fit with the rest of the team—and they should get rid of those employees quickly, according to Feld. “You can’t change them,” he said, and you can’t “try to motivate people to work harder” through things like performance reviews. That simply doesn’t work, at least not for small startups.

Instead, founders need to continually make sure they are bringing on the right people for their team, communicating openly, “building the language of the company,” and tying that formative context and culture very closely to their product, he said. This will mean very different things for different companies, and it’s certainly not an exact science.

Feld said he sees a common mistake in young startups. “The CEO ends up doing a lot of the work,” he said, and “the non-CEOs don’t do the right work.” The CEO’s chief responsibility, over time, is to make sure “everyone is doing the right thing.”

Oh, and one more responsibility: “Don’t run out of money,” he said.

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