Behind the Scenes: What it’s Really Like to Run a Startup
Three entrepreneurs share their paths to success and the bumps along the way
Navigating a startup is like wandering through unchartered territory. Adrian Tuck, CEO of Uplight, Wendi Burkhardt, CEO and co-founder of Silvernest, and Krista Marks, CEO of Woot Math, would know. These entrepreneurs discussed the truth behind starting a business at last week’s Denver Startup Week. The panel was moderated by Natty Zola, partner of Matchstick Ventures and managing director of TechStars Boulder.
A common theme emerged in each panelist’s story: a prolonged period of flatness. Responding to each period as an opportunity to learn about the business is key to overcoming the plot twists.
When Burkhardt experienced a slow start at Silvernest she realized it was an awareness problem, not a demand problem. The feedback received from users was validating but her team “grossly underestimated the amount of education that it would take to actually introduce something that’s completely disruptive,” Burkhadt says.
When Tuck’s company nearly failed, he was motivated by an obligation to investors, employees and customers that he wanted to fulfill.
“It didn’t occur to me to give up. Gradually that sense of obligation turned into a sense of opportunity. Finally, it became about the mission again,” Tuck says.
How does an entrepreneur know when to persist or move on to something else?
“As long as you see opportunity and as long as the team is still into it,” Marks says.
It comes down to simple economics: understanding the scalability of a business plan, the truth of revenue and how long it will take to hit profitability, Burkhardt says.
Tuck admits that it was not obvious any of his four startups would succeed.
“As CEO, you have to strike a balance — and you never it get it right — between this hubris that you can change something and the humility to listen to people around you,” Tuck says.
Problems arose for the entrepreneurs when there was “a lack of understanding of intended impacts and the unforeseen thing you forgot to think about,” Burkhardt says.
To combat the unexpected, Marks advises to “get the real data” in order to understand your target customer and market and avoid being too optimistic.
Leading a startup can be lonely. Panelists agreed with Burkhardt that “network is critical.” Surrounding themselves with diverse communities to offer support, advice and challenge them has been crucial to their personal and professional achievements.
Marks stressed taking the time to attract, recruit and retain valuable talent since building a remarkable team has been one of the most rewarding aspects of her startups.
Consistency is also important when starting up. “Maintain as much discipline during the good times as you necessarily have to have during the bad times,” Tuck says.
Despite an entrepreneur’s hope that a business will grow linearly, Tuck, Burkhardt and Marks proved startup journeys can go through flat beginnings, instant peaks, left turns, circles backward and countless pivots.
Regardless of the trials an entrepreneur faces, “the joyfulness of launching a startup is hard to beat,” Marks says.
Madison Bickler is a senior Journalism & Media Communication and Business student at Colorado State University. Her passions meet at the intersection of media and business. She participated in a partnership between the University and ColoradoBiz magazine that brought students from Fort Collins to Denver Startup Week 2019.