Ten Things I’ve Learned In Growing a Start-Up Over The Last Year

Rob Bailey
19th November 2012 1 Comment

One of my favorite things to read are blog posts from other entrepreneurs of lessons they’ve learned in the trenches. (For example, here’s a great post from the founder of Quirky).
I thought I’d share some assumptions I’ve learned during the past year. Most are insights gleaned from mistakes I’ve made repeatedly or seen other entrepreneurs make.

1. We can’t all be Steve Jobs.  In the 12+ years I’ve been in tech I’ve frequently heard entrepreneurs quote Steve about the importance of ignoring what customers want.  I’m surprised at how frequently those entrepreneurs end up not winning. At DataSift we are obsessed with our customers, their needs and ensuring they are happy using our platform. We still have a long way to go (and are constantly working on a roadmap to get there) but it’s our #1 priority. It’s amazing how many good ideas customers give you when you listen to them.

2. Investors & board members should be core members of your team.  One of the most important reasons for our success this year was a very, very involved Board of Directors. Mark Suster from GRP, Roger Ehrenberg & his team from IA Ventures and Chris Smart from Acacia Capital have spent huge amounts of time over the last year helping us get to where we are today.  Every one of them has answered IMs and emails late at night and on weekends.  They have put in so many hours that sometimes I feel like I should thank their spouses and families too.  I’d like to give special thanks to Mark Suster for convincing me that it was the right move for me to join a 20 person technical team based in another country. One of the best decisions I’ve made in retrospect, but a tough decision at the time.

3.  The more waves you ride at the same time, the easier your life is.  
Although I didn’t completely realize this at the time I joined, DataSift is perfectly positioned to ride several very large trends: the exploding use of social networks and their growing importance to companies, the migration to SaaS and Cloud computing, and rising sophistication of technology for deriving value from unstructured, free form data. This has been at least partially responsible for the flood of inbound interest we’ve had from customers.

4. Culture is as important as revenues.   Nick and I have placed a high importance on creating the right culture at DataSift: hard working, intense, customer focused, but also fun. Critical to this has been making the right hires from the beginning. We have a very exhaustive interview process and Nick and I typically both talk to every candidate before they receive an offer.  I’ve been very humbled by the high quality of the team we’ve built. The executive team has tried to lead by actions, not just words. For example, we try to make sure we are the first in and the last out.  Culture is the thing that ensures your team members do the right thing for the company even when no one is looking.

5.  Love what you sell.  To say we are obsessed with Social Media and News is an understatement.  We firmly believe that social networks like Twitter are radically changing the way companies communicate with their customers, governments communicate with their citizens, news gets disseminated, products get researched, etc. We spend lots of time on Social networks and that has given us great insights into better helping our customers.

6. Customer engagement and happiness is as important as revenues.  
Since we launched, we have grown our Client Services and Support teams as fast as our Sales teams.  We have been obsessed with ensuring that our customers love using our platform and have endeavored to constantly launch new features and content types in response to what our customers have told us what is important.  Scale Venture Partners dug very deep into customer engagement levels and we think it was a key reason why they chose to invest.

7. Revenue momentum makes life much easier.  While it’s common in our industry for start-ups to focus on user acquisition first, we have felt since we launched that there is no greater proof of the value created by a new platform than the fact that customers are willing to pay for using it. Our steady revenue growth during the past year was a key reason why we received so much interest from investors.

8. Innovate as fast as you can.  
The amazing Engineering team we’ve built has enabled us to push the boundaries in new technologies in ways that constantly provided more value for our customers. This has enabled us to launch a wide range of platform features, including our graphical Query Builder, a drag and drop interface that makes it really easy for our customers to build new filters. This fast pace of innovation and our proven ability to launch products quickly was something that investors seemed to really like.

9. Trust your gut instincts on cultural “fit”.  We were constantly amazed by how much correlation there was between the hiring process for team members and fundraising process and the feeling we got from our first meeting with different candidates and whether they ended up being a “fit” for us. Our first meeting with Scale Venture Partners was perhaps our favorite meeting of the entire fundraising process and it was great that they ended up being the lead.

10. Watch your competitors obsessively.  While we’ve heard advice in the past to ignore the competition, we chose to ignore that advice and watch our competitors closely. This meant staying ahead of them in technology and constantly launching new features. This enabled us to speak intelligently about how we were going to best compete and what that meant for our long term roadmap.

Rob Bailey

Written by Rob Bailey

Rob Bailey is the CEO of DataSift.

  • http://www.HubSpot.com Dharmesh Shah

    Great article.  Thanks for sharing — and congrats on all the success with DataSift.  Almost all of them resonated with me.  The only one I somewhat disagree with is the “obsess over the competition”.  It varies by situation, but generally, I think most startups are better off obsessing over the problem they’re solving, not the competition.  Having said that, it’s important to stay mindful of the competition, but be careful not to follow them.

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