Three Lessons on Startups, As Told By Ron Wiener From Earth Class Mail
Ron Wiener is best known these days as the founding CEO (now chairman) of Earth Class Mail, a Seattle-based software firm that digitizes postal mail for companies. He is a successful and outspoken entrepreneur who has run five investor-backed tech companies in the past 20 years—besides Earth Class Mail, he was previously CEO of Azure Technology (San Jose, CA), JetStream (Hillsboro, OR), PrintBid.com (Portland, OR), and SnapNames.com (Portland, OR).
Wiener stepped down as chief executive of Earth Class Mail in June of this year, and has been spending more time on the investment side of things. He runs Venture Mechanics, a Seattle-based venture firm focused on advising, funding, and incubating tech startups in the Pacific Northwest.
I recently sat down with Wiener to chat about his investment themes and his advice for tech entrepreneurs. It’s still a little too early to say much about what he’s incubating at Venture Mechanics, but he did share some general tips on getting startups off the ground, and surviving, in the current climate—three of the key ones are below. We’ll have much more from Wiener another time; in the interim, I’d recommend that any interested entrepreneurs go see him speak, or read his startup fundraising advice at places like Keiretsu Forum. (He’s pretty inspirational when he talks about the “entrepreneurial seizure” and the “orgasmic” feeling of starting your own company.)
Meanwhile, here are those tips from Wiener that I mentioned, three points of advice that stood out to me as either a little unconventional, or just plain solid thinking that entrepreneurs should hear:
—Wait as long as you can. Don’t rush into entrepreneurship before you’ve served a sufficient apprenticeship in a business of the same size and speed, Wiener says. Plan thoroughly before plunging ahead. Many entrepreneurs rush off to build their businesses as soon as they have their idea. This advice fits into the category of “learn from others as much as possible,” Wiener says.
—“Do what you love and the rest will follow” is horrible advice for starting a business. Instead, Wiener advises that you figure out first what will be loved by markets and investors, and pursue that. But he emphasizes that this advice “really only applies to the entrepreneur who is dreaming of building a ‘fast company,’ as opposed to a small business.” (I would be interested to hear what entrepreneurs have to say about this. I would guess that most think love is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for startup success. But you have to start somewhere.)
—Be prepared to deal with ups and downs—especially downs. “It’s virtually impossible to start a company and not go through a down cycle,” Wiener says. That could mean the climate for raising capital goes south, paying customers leave, or you make strategic errors. Wiener recommends you have a contingency plan for everything you can think of that could go wrong—and then work it out with the management team ahead of time.