Veteran Silicon Valley businessman and marketer Guy Kawasaki grants entrepreneurs his keys to launching and running a successful startup.
Guy Kawasaki is a Silicon Valley name that needs no introduction. He’s been a leading voice in entrepreneurship and evangelism for years, beginning at Apple in 1983. As an adviser, author, investor, and marketer, Kawasaki has cultivated a unique perspective on what it takes to start a company. He’s particularly adept at helping startups and early-stage companies get off the ground—and guiding them towards becoming well-known, successful businesses.
Kawasaki is always willing to share his advice for founders and aspiring entrepreneurs through his writing and speaking (including at Lean Startup Week this fall). Over the years, he’s seen the good, the bad, and the ugly, and also uncovered many misconceptions held by new entrepreneurs about starting companies. We asked him to chat about what he’s learned in his career, what’s changed since he’s started, and what today’s entrepreneurs need to know to be successful.
Kawasaki’s Golden Touch
Given the impressive list of companies for which Kawasaki has worked over the years, you might think there’s some complex formula or secret behind his success and influence. But in his mind, it’s much simpler than that.
There’s a section on Kawasaki’s website that lists the various companies for which he’s worked called “Guy’s Golden Touch.” Yet Kawasaki noted that “‘Guy’s Golden Touch is not ‘whatever Guy touches turns to gold.’ It’s ‘whatever is gold, Guy touches.'” This distinction is core to being a successful evangelist because, as he says, “it’s easy to evangelize something great and it’s very hard to evangelize crap.”
Put simply: When he’s deciding whether or not he wants to evangelize a product, he asks himself if he wants to use the product. In fact, Kawasaki joined his latest venture, Canva, because the founders of the graphic design software company saw he was a user and reached out to him. Not only does he look for products that he likes using, he looks for products that have the potential to make a difference.
He was drawn to Canva because he believed that “just as Macintosh democratized computing, Canva is democratizing design.” By giving people a way to create graphics easily and without expensive, hard-to-use tools, Canva can “really make a dent in the universe” just as Macintosh has.
Rethinking the Fundraising Rat Race
Not only is technology becoming more democratized but entrepreneurship is increasingly more accessible. With venture capital (VC) investments slowing down, one might think now isn’t a great time to start a company. But Kawasaki says there’s never been a better time than now.
Raising money has necessarily become a driving focus for the startup community, but Kawasaki said we may have forgotten that “raising money is a necessary evil, not the goal.” In fact, Kawasaki believes too much money is worse than too little because “it causes people to act stupid and lazy.” When companies raise money, they feel like they should spend it. In reality, he said, they should just be focused on sales and revenue.
Running lean not only helps companies make smarter decisions and focus on the right priorities, it’s also easier than ever before. Raising money isn’t nearly the barrier to entry as it was a decade or more ago.
Today, “just about everything a tech startup needs is free or at least cheap,” explained Kawasaki. “Infrastructure is in the cloud, social media is free marketing, teams are virtual so you don’t need as much real estate, and most tools are public domain. Plus, there is an alternate form of fundraising called crowdfunding,” he said. Not only is it less expensive than ever before to start a business but there are more options for raising the money you need.
Setting the Right Expectations
In the fallout from the hype around VC investments and high valuations, everyone wants to be a “unicorn” or demonstrate rapid growth. But Kawasaki believes this isn’t the right way to think about it.
“Companies don’t fail because they can’t scale,” he explained. “They fail because they can’t get revenue. I’ve never seen a company fail because it couldn’t scale fast enough.”
That’s why continuous sales and cash flow, not “growth,” is the key to staying in the game. It’s hard not to look around at other companies and assume that it was easy for them or that they had some kind of silver bullet. But Kawasaki says that “‘instant success’ is an oxymoron.” Things look easy from the outside or in hindsight, but most companies succeed because they were able to work hard through tough times.
Challenges are to be expected so, if you can see them as part of the process, then you’re less likely to make rash decisions or get discouraged. As Kawasaki says, “The opposite of success is not failure, it’s learning.”
Product and Technology Aren’t Everything
Another key aspect of the business on which founders focus is the hiring of technical people and building sophisticated technology. However, having an amazing product isn’t a guarantee of success. Although most people assume that the best product will always win, in fact, “timing, luck, and hard work can influence the final outcome,” said Kawasaki.
For example, while finding great engineers is important, “people skills are harder to come by than technology skills,” he said. Specifically, collaboration and tenacity are critical attributes, especially when it comes to pushing through tough times.
Some type of marketing or evangelism is also critical to success. Another incorrect assumption according to Kawasaki: If you build a good enough product, then it will sell itself. But very few products are able to do that according to Kawasaki.
“I can’t think of one off the top of my head,” he said. But that doesn’t mean you need an extensive marketing budget. Social media is a powerful tool that is “fast, free, and ubiquitous.” If you’re focused on running lean, prioritizing sales, and generating revenue, Kawasaki said that social media is a “must.”
Expertise Is Overrated
Known for his sense of humor as much as his startup savvy, Kawasaki half-joked that a good way to make a name for yourself is “to make a lot of bets and then retroactively declare that you knew which companies would be successful after they are successful.” But, joking aside, confidence is critical when it comes to pushing through the challenges of starting a business. So is being able to make decisions even if you don’t know the “right” answer.
As Kawasaki said, “faking it till you make it is a valuable skill. It may be the most important differentiation between people in Silicon Valley and other parts of the world. We can fake it better.”