How to Grow a Startup from 0 to $1M ARR in 6 Months—Twice
Throw a rock in Silicon Valley and you’ll hit someone with a startup success story on their resume. Facebook, as of the last estimate, has about 17,000 employees worldwide. But even the 60th employee at Facebook probably doesn’t have any clue what it’s like in the trenches of an early stage startup.
It’s harder to find stories from people who were there at the beginning. The day when the team survived off ramen and canned soup. Even when you get ahold of those people, they tend to gloss over the rough edges. Things have gone well for them, and they’ve long since put those old obstacles in their rearview.
However, if you’re grinding to grow your startup, you want to hear the hard stuff. Right now, your life is full of tough obstacles, and all you want to know is how other people overcame them.
We spoke to two early team members at successful startups—Lucy Zhao, lead product manager at Plivo; and Anand Kulkarni, co-founder of LeadGenius, to talk about what it’s actually like to scale from the bottom up. They told us about:
- building an early stage team that grows with the company
- the benefits and downsides of accelerators
- how to get past decision makers when your product is brand new
Here’s their advice, no holds barred:
1. Incubators aren’t the only route
Sometimes it can feel like if you don’t get into Y Combinator or another accelerator, you’re dead in the water. But Anand told us that “incubators are a dime a dozen.”
Plivo and LeadGenius both went through YC, but Anand and Lucy have seen that it’s not a sure path to success. What’s more, startups can replicate an accelerator’s effect on their own. YC has two main principles:
- Talk to customers
- Build more product
You can do that yourself.
Yes, YC gives you a great network, but so does messaging the right people on Facebook and LinkedIn. With that said, one of the biggest benefits of the experience is that you’re forced to compete and make a minimum viable product fast. So set up your own deadline demo day. Put it on your calendar and say that no matter what, “we’re gonna ship on this day and present to 50 friends.” By having a timeline in place, you’ll get driven to perform at that level.
Accelerators also sometimes encourage founders to focus on things that don’t matter. For example, many founders in accelerators are interested in getting big name VCs on their team, but Lucy noted that you need to keep in mind that names aren’t all that matter.
“Investors having industry knowledge in your space is critical. They’re not just putting money in your company. You need their feedback, and guidance. And if they don’t know your tech well, they won’t be able to give that to you along the way.” Sometimes you need to do it yourself.
TL;DR: You don’t need an accelerator. You do need a serious deadline.
2. Give value to get leads
When it comes to getting traction, everyone is curious to hear what channels work best today, whether it’s tapping into social networks or paid ads or sales teams. But both Lucy and Anand agree that it’s not the channel you’re using so much as the content you’re delivering.
To get leads, you need to deliver valuable content.
At LeadGenius, they delivered that value with emails. In the early days when they were trying to get traction, they emailed people aggressively asking if they wanted to buy the product—but they never sent emails with broad messaging.
Instead, they sent tailored, hyper-researched messages using their own software. They told prospects why LeadGenius would work for their company based on research. “We found that the more authentic and direct you were about this stuff,” Anand said, “the more you’d actually get the time to engage and say something that mattered.”
He’s taken a bit of a different approach with his new company, Crowdbotics, where they gather leads from their company community. It’s invite-only, and people have to approach to ask for a seat in it. Eventually, some of these people might become customers, but “you don’t need to push it down their throats. You need to do something that is useful for them.”
Plivo took a similar approach in the early days. Their developers put together a throwaway video conferencing solution in the browser. People could click it and invite friends, and some are still using it to this day from Plivo’s Github. It wasn’t the core product, but it allowed for developers to see right away the power of Plivo’s platform. By delivering value early, they got leads to an aha moment early in the lifecycle, and as a result, they got traction.
TL;DR: Give value to get value.
3. It’s all about the team
At an early stage startup, you live with your team.
So how do you find a good hire? And how do you get people through the early days when everything is stressful? These rougher parts of early startup life aren’t as glamorous, but key to figure out to keep traction on the upswing.
Lucy says when it comes to early employees it’s always a hit or miss. It’s important to spend actual time with them, to see if you can live with them. “In the beginning of Plivo,” she said, “we almost didn’t have any weekends off. We worked a minimum of 16 hours a day. And it was just like, total roller coaster, super high highs and super low lows.
And you just have to hire people who are resilient to that. Who believe in the mission enough to carry a floor, even at those really, really low points when you have downtime and all your customers are yelling and crying.”
There are a lot of ways to hire for resilience. From personal experience, Lucy has found that athletes and former founders tend to be good hires, but there are certainly other ways to look for it, too.
Anand added that a lot of it in the early stages comes down to motivating the team. “The CEO’s job,” he said, “In addition to other stuff, is to be the chief optimist of the company.” You need to spend a lot of time talking to everybody about why what you’re doing will win, and why it will matter. You need to give them information over chat, email and other channels to make sure they believe you are committed, and they should be too.
“The other thing that you have to do in the early stages,” he said “is celebrate a lot of wins.” Made a sale? Give someone a shoutout in Slack. Got a compliment on your logo? Tell the designer.”
Take all positive feedback to your team and remind them, “Hey, look, things are working. This is going well.”
TL;DR: Amplify small wins for the team so everyone stays motivated.
Lucy and Anand represent true startup warriors willing to grit it out to make a dent in the world. Sometimes it takes years of pulling hair, and seeing friends come and go before you can look back and realize how far you’ve come.
Their stories show early stage startups are all about dedication. Whether that means spending 16 hours of your day hacking from a beanbag or gearing up for a self-imposed demo day, you need to pull through the tough stuff to succeed. Maybe then, you’ll have a startup success story of your own.
Tune in to the original interview where Lucy and Anand share their stories, and let us know about your own startup growth story in the comments.