Over the last 30 years and four companies later, I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to set a company up for success. Oftentimes, success is tied to making forward thinking product decisions, focusing on the customer, and developing a strong culture that lets your teams thrive. Here are my 10 key pieces of advice for building a successful company.
Relentlessly focus on the product
Many times, new founders want to move quickly, sacrificing the initial time and effort investment to get the product architecture right the first time. But it’s very hard to go back and reengineer something that’s not built well from the beginning. It’s important to make that initial investment and get the architecture right the first time to avoid the house of cards that appears 5-10 years down the line.
Make forward-looking technology choices
Related to focusing on the product first, it’s also important to have a forward-looking mindset when it comes to technology. To create a product that stands the test of time, you need to look ahead to where tech is going. Sometimes, that may mean making the hard choice to select a technology that is up and coming, but not perfect today.
Build in security from the beginning
Many companies often wait to address security issues until they have a security incident, like a data breach. Especially if you’re a company that handles sensitive data, such as healthcare data, building in security to your product development process is not only essential, but it can become a product differentiator.
Treat the first few customers like gold and don’t worry about the revenue (or profitability)
The first customers are critical for any company. They’re hard to get, hard to keep, and have a tremendous influence on the ultimate fate of the company. Having a referenceable customer is more important than the revenue you make from that customer.
Create a generalist, doer culture
Teams that have a “that’s not my job” attitude often fail. On small teams, everything is everybody’s job. I’ve always been struck by people in middle management positions who tend to be more like gatekeepers than helpers. By hiring players/coaches who are still contributing individually as well as facilitating the efforts of their teams, you’ll have more efficient, stronger teams.
Foster personal relationships
Personal bonds between people make stronger teams. Find opportunities for individuals who normally don’t work together to work on a group project, like a hackathon. Hold off-site retreats whenever possible to foster personal relationships.
Create a blame-free culture of continual improvement
At LifeOmic, whenever there’s a software or security issue, the team conducts a post mortem meeting to better understand what happened. We emphasize that there’s no blame: if new code introduces a security breach, we want to learn from it so we can improve for next time. By creating a culture where we acknowledge that no one is perfect, there’s less pressure to hide important mistakes.
Create a learning culture
This has been critical for us. When I started LifeOmic, the team was an odd mixture of scientists with a deep understanding of genetics and a group of computer programmers who didn’t understand a thing about DNA. We realized that we had to address this gap. So once or twice a year, we go through a company-wide learning study. We take a scientific course or read a book that’s tied to our work together as a team. And the team includes everyone — geneticists, engineers, marketers, admins, sales, everyone. By doing this, it brings the team together through intellectual commonality.
Celebrate (all) wins
Make sure that peoples’ contributions get noticed. There’s nothing more demoralizing than working on a complicated project for months and no one notices. It’s important to celebrate all wins, no matter how small they may seem.
Formalize goals and monitor status
It’s important for companies to create a formalized process for setting company goals, making them visible, and tracking progress against those goals. At LifeOmic, I ask everyone to file a weekly status report; nothing complicated, just four or five bullets. I then read every single one of those status reports and I ask people questions about them. I’ve done this at both large and small companies, sometimes reading up to 2,000 status reports each week.
By doing this, I gain more insight into the day-to-day work, providing me an opportunity to both point out redundancies and issues, but also celebrate the small wins that can get overlooked. It builds my credibility with the team and shows them that the CEO is paying attention and appreciates their work. Leaders who follow these tips will not only build better companies, but they’ll set their teams up for success in the long term.