How do you succeed at a startup? 6 Chicago tech leaders weigh in

by Andreas Rekdal
August 4, 2016

What does it take to succeed at a startup?

In an industry that's all about solving problems in innovative ways, success rarely comes from following any single recipe. But the people and companies who are succeeding are clearly doing something right.

To try and get a handle on what the "secret sauce" is, we decided to ask some of Chicago's growing tech companies what they think it takes to succeed in tech today. They had great advice to offer both for individuals and young companies looking to make their mark. 

The serial entrepreneur behind ventures like Viewpoints and FireStarter Fund, PowerReviews CEO Matt Moog knows a thing or two about what it takes to make your way in the tech industry. To him, succeeding is all about teamwork and going above and beyond expectations.

“In order to be successful at a tech company, an individual must be committed to three things: learning, communicating and collaborating. It’s key to be an active listener, ask good questions, and make connections to the big picture,” said Moog. “At PowerReviews, we’ve found that our most successful employees go above and beyond what’s asked of them to solve problems, create opportunities, and improve efficiency — both within their own functional areas and across the organization.”

NowSecure VP of Marketing Jeff Nolan agrees with Moog that teamwork is key to tech success — not only for individual employees, but for the company's success, too.

“People, products, and market all have to come together,” Nolan said. “Your product vision has to fit the market opportunity now, and you have to hire the best people who can work together as a team to achieve that product and market vision.”

For individuals hoping to thrive in an ever-changing landscape, he also emphasizes the importance of always keeping an open mind — even about the things they think they know pretty well.

“Have a strong starting point but allow for course corrections and flexing as you develop experience. You can’t be dogmatic as new and improved information becomes available to you,” said Nolan.

Taking on new responsibility has always been a way to climb the ladder, but in the startup world, where there'll never be enough time or resources, Via Operations Principal Chris Snyder believes that understanding your limitations is more important than ever.

"If you want to thrive at a startup, be humble. More than anything, startups will teach you about your limitations. It's exhilarating, but it's equally often overwhelming," said Snyder. "Realize that you don't know everything, and more importantly that you can't do everything. Stay focused on what's most important and you'll end up learning — and doing — 500 percent more than you would if you'd gone to work for a big company with a fancy lobby."

To Payline co-founder and CEO Jeff Shea, success for a startup is brought about by a single, all-important thing: hard work.

“Nothing comes easy, and for a business to succeed — especially a startup — you have to be able to outwork your competitors,” Shea said.

But no matter how hard you work, problems out of your control will inevitably arise. CSO and co-founder Steve Blentlinger emphasizes the importance for founders not to become discouraged.

“Startups are hard. Seriously hard. 90 percent of all startups fail, so even when you work your butt off, it could be all for naught,” said Blentlinger. “Whether you're rewriting thousands of lines of code to perfect UX/UI, talking to customers trying to find features to get product-market fit, spending hours on sales calls, writing blog posts, answering angry customer calls (yes, those will happen), ordering the late night pizza to boost morale (and make that release deadline) or even just taking out the trash after, there are never enough hands, minds or voices throughout every stage of a startup's life.”

And for employees pushing up against that unmeetable deadline, it’s important to take a step back and not let the stress itself keep them from getting their work done.

“Rome wasn't built in a day,” said VP of Revenue Carlton van Putten. “Have a ‘relaxed’ sense of urgency to get things done but don't let lack of resources, process or direction cause distress.”

Images via listed companies.

Have a tip for us or know of a company that deserves coverage? Shoot us an email or follow us on Twitter @BuiltInChicago.

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