Tenshi’s Seren Eilmann talks about her experience as the founder of cross-sectoral start-up Heelosophy.
Building a company like Heelosophy that has roots in so many different disciplines and industries is extremely exciting and rewarding, but can sometimes also lead us to a despair. Probably someone else out there is struggling with the exact same subjects as we do, so we decided to bring it forward — after all, a shared problem is half a problem less, as we like to say in Estonia (“jagatud mure on pool muret”). Here is the doom and tears of a multi-disciplinary (or any, really) technology startup.
Disclaimer: all these standpoints are based on Heelosophy’s experience and may not apply to others. Take it with a grain of salt, or literally — the decision is yours to make.
Most likely you have heard the story of Airbnb — the golden standard of bootstrapping by selling Obama-branded cereals to earn their first seed money and start a business. Brilliant, right? Indeed — if you have an idea that takes little effort and brings in easy cash, go for it! But in any other case bootstrapping is a straight road to hell.
It’s especially true for a hardware and cross-sectoral startup where you cannot solely rely on brains, will power and enthusiasm of the team, but need to provide it with tools and physical stuff to play with. Equipment, materials, components — all of it needs hard, cold cash to be provided. So while you’re skimping on whether you really-really need to buy a plasma chamber or perhaps your all-star brilliant team can just spend 4 weeks building it to save money, you realise – that’s how you’re going to die. Bootstrapping kills your speed.
It’s often asked, how can creative and techy people find a common language when working together. There is a good answer to this — it’s love. Love can be a tricky thing, though — there can be too little, but also too much of it. Latter goes for when you are so deeply, madly in love with your idea/solution that it seems impossible to make any changes to it, big or small.
While we strongly believe in keeping to your vision, some small twists and turns might help you get there faster. Pivoting is your destiny — accept and embrace it.
But do it only if you see the potential of the change, not because an advisor told you so. Each mentor in each discipline might have a very unique point of view, more often than not diametrically different to others’; you should listen, learn, combine — and then, if needed, hold your head high to say: “Thank you for the suggestion, we’ll definitely keep it in mind, but for now we need to go this way.”.
Love also holds a very special role in any company that combines creativity and engineering — above all, you need to be passionate about your common goal, but you also need to love the technology. There is no other way to work in a tech startup. It’s not an issue if you don’t YET know the technology, but you cannot escape being fascinated by it. Otherwise, the life in the office can be a living hell.
As soon as you stop bootstrapping, you’ll encounter that any outside money comes with stakeholders attached to it. And every stakeholder comes with his or her own agenda attached. It’s so very important to keep the communication going to ensure you have common grounds and vision with all stakeholders. This takes an enormous amount of resources.
Plus, if things go sour (and they do, they always go sour before it goes better), you have to accept that in most cases, crisis and problems are not welcomed by your stakeholders. They might have own interests at play that are not necessarily working for you, but against you. We learned it the hard way — it hurt our company a lot to please a stakeholder once. Sometimes you need to bite the bullet and close the door behind you.
Mass customisation is a challenge — how do you automate personalisation? Sure, it’s one of the reasons why Heelosophy is so cool and exciting, but it sometimes also works against us. Actually, technology is rarely a challenge, as we’ve heard from many mentors. Technological development can always be boosted by hiring more engineers. But you need to be aware of the marketing challenge – make sure there is someone waiting for your product before you hire your next 100 engineers.
In addition to the engineering challenge, we also have a cultural challenge at our hands — luxury in the fashion industry has always been a highly customised field of business, the reasoning behind the price point. Now, we want luxury to be mass produced. Can you see the conflict?
There is no better way to set yourself off the track than being too obsessed about the success stories collected from over-glorifying, over-simplifying media. It’s especially mortifying to learn of a Potato Salad Kickstarter campaign while you are trying to sell your fabulous, extraordinary, life- and world-changing product to investors who, for some reason, don’t start throwing their money towards you as soon as you finish your pitch.
The truth is, and it’s far easier said than done, you need to be realistic about how fast you can progress. How fast are you supposed to? We’ve heard an opinion that for a hardware product, it takes an average of 6 years from the idea to a tangible success. You should not compare yourself against superstars, but against companies working under the same conditions, with same resources or, minimum, in the same field of business. And when comparing, don’t let it demotivate you.
Probably it sounds very controversial to say that for a technology startup, technology itself is the fastest road to hell. In today’s technology-oriented world, every gadget and geeky solution is a source of admiration — the techier the cooler. People actually expect their fridge to check the beer supply, doorknob to know their name and toothbrush to share dentist expertise during the evening brushing session.
In the world of technology supremacy, it’s easy to get lost in the competition for the title of the coolest kid in the block and develop fancier-faster-techier-smaller-bigger-better solutions over and over again.
There is a huge difference between early adopters fueled and praised by online media and mass market who are perfectly fine with already existing solutions. Well, maybe not perfectly, but you know… if it ain’t broke… Living a life of a technology startup, it’s beyond belief to realise ordinary people actually freak out hearing their door talking back to them. Or that it might be a tiny bit too much effort to connect a USB cable. Maybe there is a way to avoid developing a completely new technology, but make smart use of old?
In Heelosophy we have three startups in one — it’s three different technologies we are developing simultaneously and it makes everything three times more difficult. Smart use of what’s already there is the only way to go for us.
… and now what?!
After all this doom, tears and blood, one might ask why on Earth should anyone start a technology startup? Well, keep your head cool! It is really not that difficult and it can be lots of fun.
All you need is love… and loads of cash.