When I speak at business school classes (on either side of the Charles river) about entrepreneurship I use this metaphor:
Imagine yourself at the edge of a large foggy lake. Your job is to build four bridges concurrently that meet in the middle. Each bridge must believe the other bridges are being built to meet them in the middle of the fog. You are responsible for building, recruiting others, cheerleading, cajoling, providing the wood and nails, and knowing how to make it happen. Your most critical role may be sustaining and communicating the belief that it can, and will, be done.
Again, you must build the four bridges concurrently, not sequentially, to meet in the middle. There is no order of importance. They are all equally important.
The first bridge is your TEAM.
The second bridge is your PRODUCT.
The third is CUSTOMERS.
The last is INVESTORS.
This multiple-bridges metaphor is useful for at least three reasons:
1) Mutual dependency
Each bridge depends on parallel progress with ALL of the other bridges. It becomes easier to recruit a great teammate when funding is committed. Of course you need a strong team to build a killer product. Paying customers beget salivating investors, etc. Conversely, it’s very hard to make progress on any bridge without building all bridges.
Importantly, the entrepreneur’s job is to frequently broadcast the progress that each bridge is making to the other bridges. Each advance builds confidence in the others. Social media makes this easy and affordable. This momentum is critical and contagious.
2) Incremental progress
In each bridge, aspire to lay down a new board every day. Some days the boards are narrow, some days you put down multiple wider boards.
You add boards to your TEAM bridge by recruiting and motivating. If you don’t have the resources to hire someone you can at least interview and attract people. Get a commitment from a potential teammate to join if you can close funding or sign up a customer.
If you are resource constrained, prototype some aspect of your PRODUCT to build this bridge. Make a video scenario that illustrates your vision. Work on the service design or detailed specification if you can’t hire the electrical engineering talent or start tooling. This bridge will require constant adjustments as you get feedback each of the other bridges, especially customers.
To advance the CUSTOMER bridge, share the specs or a prototype of your product with potential buyers or distributors for their feedback. Try to get a letter of intent or a conditional purchase order that you can share with your investors.
Potential INVESTORS want to see as much progress as possible with your other bridges. If you aren’t getting termsheets, try to get a commitment for a termsheet when you reach specific milestones. Ideally a near-future, high-probability milestone. At least you can add very thin boards by letting investors take you to breakfast and lunch to nurture the relationships and conceptually stress-test your bridges.
3) Foggy finish lines
When driving in the fog, obstacles emerge quickly. The timing of important business milestones like profitability, awards, key contracts, or an acquisition are often hard to predict. Most days the best you can do is to keep hammering away despite the poor visibility. With perseverance you’ll see the finish line of your labors the moment before it happens.
Once, a sharp business school student asked me if a better startup metaphor would be digging four tunnels to meet below a mountain. She may be right. Many days company-building feels dingy, mucky, oxygen-deprived, and the only way forward is with explosives.
But, I’d rather be bridge-building over a misty lake. Wouldn’t you?