Entrepreneurial learning journey: the startup life cycle

So, you’re on the journey from idea to product, through startup to a high growth business. Each stage of the startup lifecycle brings a set of obstacles and challenges to deal with and overcome. You have to be alert and flexible in your thinking, adapting your strategy as you progress, different approaches are needed for each stage.

Your startup leaps through stages of growth just as our own human development lifecycle. Birth begins when we shoot out into the light. From there we learn to walk and talk, ride a bike and go to school. Having your first kiss, passing your driving test, casting your first vote…life is a series of milestones.

The story of your life, and life to be lived, is a series of chronological steps, so what are the parallel steps in your natural development and your start-up life journey?

Stage One – Being born: problem-solution fit

Birth marks the beginning of life free and independent of umbilicus, placenta and amniotic fluid. Yet perhaps life starts with conception, followed by the slow motion bloom of the foetus consciousness. What was the genesis of your startup, the moment of passion that created that ‘eureka’ moment?

Your expulsion from your mothers’ body jump-starts your being as a singleton, singularity stemming from the amorous clash of parental chromosomes, the emergence of a fresh life into a brand new day. Human birth is as romantic as that of any two startup adventurers first meeting – Jagger and Richards on a train platform, Hewlett and Packard at a family party, Jobs and Wozniak at a geeks club trading computer spare parts. Serendipity, chemistry and collision in both.

In response to Malvolio’s caption from Twelfth Night, some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them, the birth of a startup is the start of a unique journey and a chance to make your mark. You’ve got your business idea and you are ready to take the plunge. But first you must assess just how viable your startup is likely to be.

In some ways, this is the soul-searching phase. It’s where you take a step back and experiment with the feasibility of your business idea, and also ask yourself if you have what it takes to make it a success.

At this point, ask yourself two questions: What problem am I solving? and Does my proposed solution solve it effectively? If you have a clear answer to the first question and a confident ‘Yes’ for the second, then you’ve got problem-solution fit, and a hypothesis, and it’s time to start testing your idea.

Stage Two – Learning to walk and talk: MVP

Learning to walk and talk are the next stages. Man crawls, walks upright and then resorts to a walking stick. Walking involves unconscious intent, nothing can halt the urge to stand up and move. Walking plots our journey in life, homo erects marks a triumph, four to two reprises Darwin’s evolution in a moment in time. When we stand up we join the same category as creatures as quirky as ostriches. George Orwell had the same opinion.

Of course babies’ first steps are theatrical, learning to walk usually takes place in a domestic theatre of relatives urging and applauding, capturing incremental advance on a camera for posterity. So it is with a startup, stumbling around, unsure of the initial direction, a sense of clumsy movement often falling over to pick themselves up again.

Making physical contact with another person means crossing the room, the feet enable the touching of hands, socialisation starts, as the first encounter with the first customer with your MVP. New language means a period of babble, a sound of nascent expression so subjective it leaves an infant stranded between private articulation and public incomprehension – so be careful your first articulation of your startup is a clear conversation, not babble!

This is the riskiest stage of a startup. Much of your time is spent going back-and-forth, tweaking your MVP based on feedback of your first pilot users. You’re just starting to walk and talk about your idea with potential customers and there will be noise and some trip up and painful moments too.

The purpose of this next step is to test your product hypothesis with the smallest possible investment of time and capital, hence, minimum viable product. You are proving demand and learning about customer behaviour, while minimising risk. Once you’ve validated your MVP focus on getting users into your product – it’s time to grow your customer base and get out into the market.

There is a big gap between what early adopters expect from a product, and what the bigger chunk of the market actually needs. The main reason behind ‘startup infanticide’ is the failure to identify and overcome this gap.

Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm best describes the Grand Canyon that every adventurous entrepreneur must leap over to ‘get to the market’. The Chasm is the region of uncertainty a business goes through before it gets to product/market fit. And the shortest way to get there is by actively listening to the customer and implementing the promised features on schedule.

Stage Three – Learning to ride a bike: product-market fit

Learning to ride a bike is often the first learning process we undergo, creating a freedom of movement not experienced before. Learning to ride a bike, boyhood youth and summertime, it’s a defining activity of childhood. It has a giddy purposelessness to go round in circles, free wheeling without regard to why and where. It is about freedom of movement independently, mastery of technical domination of the machine keeping the handlebars steady and level, not breaking too hard and maintaining pressure on the pedals.

It’s also the mastery of self, getting your legs to do new things in conjunction with your hands and eyes. The bike gives you a chance to coordinate and bring chaos from order. Balancing on two thin discs of metal.

Yet the overriding sense you need when learning to cycle is embracing risk, as sooner or later the person pushing you has let go. Without getting into cycloanalysis, the moment of where conviction meets doubt is that leap of and the irrational jump from dependence to independence, from security to self-determinism, the madness of a decision the split second when reason must in the name of action go into suspense and you start to pedal away on your own.

For a startup, this is the moment of risk for product-market fit, winning customers to prove your value proposition. You’re now creating you own forward momentum, but as Einstein said, to keep your balance you have to keep moving, an epic contradiction from just a minute ago when to stay balanced you had to stay still, now you have to hurtle forward from safety to risk. You’re on your way, my boy, but keep those knee plasters readily to hand.

In a startup, now it’s about managing fear and doubt, not knowing to self-belief, just like learning to ride a bike you focus on the wide horizon in front of you, and you make something of it for yourself. The urge to dig in your heels and pedal hard, to cut an arc into this new panorama, but the freedom means you have to make decisions and with options of turning left rather than right.

With dad left behind you, shouting encouragement proud and panting, you are now off on your own. The peculiar sound of riding a bike, an auditory rush of inner silence, a paradoxical sense of self-esteem, random deviations for you to control your own direction and pootle about. Note to self: I did it.

It’s about creating trust with customers, building credibility through exceptional experiences. An engaged user community is the fastest way to get to any startup to the next stage.

Stage Four – Facial hair: scale

When I turned thirteen, I promptly grew a moustache. Well, not exactly, it was stubble, but the first shadows of facial hair grew rapidly and randomly, and it got me thinking back to that first shave at the onset of puberty. The rite of passage seems monumental, frisky hair sprouting up all over the frisky body.

While shaving may be new to teenagers, it’s been around a long time. As early as 3000BC soldiers would pluck hairs using two clam shells as tweezers. Alexander the Great encouraged his soldiers to shave so their hair couldn’t be pulled and twisted in combat. The word barbarian comes from the image of a man who was hairy and unshaven, basically unbarbered.

Beards are back and the ‘hipster’ style is alive and kicking, as a walk in Manchester’s Northern Quarter reveals. There are dudes sporting neatly trimmed Vandykes, as Charles I wore to the scaffold, or the sharp goatee of an old-time religionist, or even the waxed mustachios’ of villains from a Victorian melodrama. There are even a few with what I describe as the ‘Captain Birdseye’, a rampant bushy display, often resembling a mass of seaweed lifted from the beach and stuck on the face.

I have never been tempted from clean-shaveness save for occasional bout of laziness, I am too afraid of emulating Edward Lear’s Old Man With a Beard, who finds it has become a home to Two owls and a hen, four larks and a wren. For me, the constant dread would have been stray bits of piecrust lying dormant and wasted.

Startups in this puberty stage often see rapid growth as the business model is emerging and you build a repeatable customer process. It can still be a hairy experience as your conversion and retention rates bristle, but you’re growing up, it’s time to scale, by investing in people and process.

This is perhaps the most important stage in the lifecycle of a startup, getting to a point where customers can comfortably whip out their wallets and pay for the service they receive on a regular basis, scaling is a tipping point of capability and capacity.

Stage Five – Your first kiss: maturity

A first kiss, like Romeo and Juliet, the emotion and meaning, the climax of that tete-a-tete, the sensory neurons in the lips that fire off impulses to the brain. A kiss is a matter of delight, a delicious fluttering feeling of hope, expectation anxiety, curiosity, relief, abandon – this blog could be a sonnet.

The romantic idyll and wondrousness of Romeo and Juliet playing with each others words, fondling where formality mocks the courting protocols, and before you know it, it’s a snog without ending. Unlike mowing the lawn, there is not a natural conclusion to a kiss. A lust for life, as Iggy sang.

You can’t kiss and speak at the same time, rational speech is cut off as kissing opens a different mode of communication in a relationship. Although we can’t talk while we kiss, kissing eventually speaks volumes.

Understanding your position in the startup lifecycle as you hit maturity might help you keep your feet on the ground whilst metaphorically kissing a lot of customers. Now is not the time to get giddy, emotional and let your feet to leave the ground. However, it is the time to develop proper long-term relationships based on trust and value.

Not all startups will experience these stages of the growth lifecycle, and those that do may not necessarily experience them in chronological order – everyone’s biological clock has its own unique time line. Some see astronomical growth – for example Airbnb – whilst others’ jump to scale can be as painful as puberty where the hormones run wild, or a troublesome teenager where behaviour is unpredictable.

As John Lennon says, life is what happens to you whilst you’re busy making other plans. However, based on my experience, many startups will see a growth journey that has some resemblance to the stages defined above, and awareness may help you anticipate what is coming next, and how you can best prepare yourself.

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