- Founders and CEOs crave fast growth, often above all else.
- It means massive funding rounds and eye-popping valuations, infusions of top talent, bandwidth to focus on more strategic tasks, as well as the all-important runway to build great products, get them to a larger market and scale the company to unicorn and beyond.
- But before you can reach the Land of Oz, Intrepid Entrepreneur, you and your ragtag team must overcome great odds and obstacles.
There’s finding product-market fit, recruiting your core team, managing your meager finances effectively, finding your first few customers, creating recurring revenue, getting earned media, among others.
And perhaps above all, in a sea of ever-changing priorities and pivots, there’s knowing what to focus on first and foremost.
Few (if any) true entrepreneurs take a straight path to success. Failures, mistakes and pivots are unavoidable in building a successful business.
Of course, only a small percentage of startups are able to catch the wave of fast growth and raise a Series A round.
An even much smaller percentage (2.5%) reach unicorn status.
About a third of those go public or go through M&A.
The average corporate longevity of a public company is 20 years and declining, meaning only a portion of public companies can sustain their lifespan over more than a decade.
So, what are the “secrets” of those unicorn founders who overcame great odds, wrong turns and lots of dead ends to push through to success?
I spoke with 4 unicorn CEOs and a Unicorn Whisperer (Israel’s top startup marketer and evangelist who advises a large portfolio of unicorns) for the Commander-in-Chief podcast to learn how they did it.
Here’s what they shared.
Hillel Fuld, Israel’s Top Tech Evangelist and Unicorn Whisperer: “Its good business to help others win business… Business is like a candle. When a candle gives fire to another candle, it loses nothing… If you don’t give your fire like candle, you’ll burn out… When I focus my time and resources on value creation (marketing, getting press) and not monetization… When I exceed expectations over and over and over… I create delight. When I come back after delighting a company, now we can do business… When that point occurs [investors start to doubt the CEO], you have two options. Hire a replacement or adapt. You gotta start somewhere. The CEO needs to grow with the company… The concept of “we don’t need to make money right now” works. If you don’t invest in growth, you’ll never reach profitability… One of the first employees at FB approached Zuckerberg with a business idea. Zuckerberg wrote “Growth” on the white board. He said, ‘if we have 2.5 billion users, we’ll find a way to monetize…’ Build your product, then align your brand with it. Everything is easier because now, you’re a thought leader…”
Ronni Zehavi, CEO of HiBob
“If you take a look and follow the majority of the success stories… there’s one thing that repeats itself in all of them. They all talk about culture. You hear it again and again, once the game is over and you’re a big success. You don’t hear much about it when you’re climbing the greasy pole… I’ve been through 3 crises – 2000, 2009 and last year… There’s no “cruising mode” in startups. You have to surround yourself with amazing people better than you who can be the CEO of what they do… who can challenge you… you’re humble enough to listen… mentally strong because at the end of the day, CEOs are alone. Anything you can afford to balance your life. I could not have done anything without my family, my wife. To balance your life, you need to pause, to take time off, to zoom out… If you’re not surrounded by strong people, you’ll be lost… you’ll be pulled down all the time and you won’t be able to breathe.”
Omer Keilaf – CEO of Innoviz ($INVZ)
“One of the problems for startups is, when they create the core DNA, it gets diluted when they grow. When you have such a strong core, no outside force can change it. It becomes like a magnet. Everyone who comes in from the outside absorbs that culture. Some entrepreneurs feel very good after raising a lot of money and rush to execute… You need to assume that you may not know anything. The first 3-4 months, I’m not going to build anything. I’m going to learn… The problem we wanted to solve was 3-4 orders of magnitude more difficult than what we thought… My army unit’s slogan is, “with talent, commitment and passion makes the impossible, possible.” It’s not just a slogan. There were so many times when were facing a situation that was impossible and we found a way to solve it… This is a bit addictive. In the last 6 months, we’ve had 8-10 people who left the company before, come back. People miss the company, the passion… When I see that passion is maintained, it’s the most important thing in the world.”
Adam Singolda – CEO of Taboola ($TBLA)
“The first 4.5-5 years, they were horrible in a way that we couldn’t make it work. There was no revenue. It was very hard work to survive, to keep doing what we believe. Today, we have 18 offices around the world, $1B in revenue, a 10-ft logo. It’s confusing. In the first 5 years, we almost shut down 3 times. That’s what’s shaped our culture for the next decade…
The very first people who choose you don’t choose your vision, don’t choose your company, they don’t choose your fame… They choose you. What truly matters is the culture you establish in the very beginning… For us, our secret sauce is how we think about people. We have 1700 employees now. I always say we’re 1700 co-founders… I want to be open with anyone to ask anything. With that transparency, we’ll push through.”
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