I helped found Meebo in 2005. It's now 2012. I heard somewhere that the average lifespan of a startup is 7 years. I have no idea if that's still true, but somehow Meebo hit that statistic right on the dot.
Growing Meebo to almost 200 people was like going to college, except there were no teachers, no classes, lots of deadlines, bald tires, a large credit card with no credit, beer and our graduation date was TBD. As a nerdy little Asian girl, the uncertainty of the endeavor was both exciting and absolutely terrifying.
Meebo grew up over those 7 years, and I did too. I'm still a nerdy little Asian girl, but with a bit more muscle, wisdom, and lots more experience. I hope that you get something out of reading this post, whether it be a sense of agreement, disagreement, inspiration or just a laugh (or two if I do this right).
It sucks to do it alone.
Regardless of whether you're starting a social tech company or selling the newest form of slap bracelets, it's going to be difficult. You're going to doubt yourself. I sure did. You're going to have brilliant ideas, and you're going to poop out some of the worst ideas known to man. The best way to manage all of that is to have a partner. It's lonely when you're struggling on your own, and it's even lonelier when you achieve success and there's no one to party with.
Boobs can help, use them.
I was flabbergasted in the early days of Meebo when I kept getting requests for interviews simply because I was a woman. I just didn't get it. I didn't feel any different than my male counterparts, but the requests kept rolling in. It took a long time for me to realize that it was great to be different! Women tend to short-sell themselves, and we often make excuses for our accomplishments. I didn't want to be treated differently because I didn't think I stood out at all.
But I did, and it was great to stand up and celebrate it. I connected to so many other women who had gone through similar journeys. Go boobs.
You're always going to be looking in the mirror.
The first 5 people you hire become the pillars of your culture and they're a direct reflection of you and your founding team. It's amazing how much the cultural identity of the team, even 5 years later, still mirrors certain personality traits of the founders. That includes the good and the bad.
If you have a bad habit of skirting conflict, guess what, so will your company. If you like spending money, so will your team. It's a healthy habit to constantly re-evaluate what you like and dislike about your culture, and make changes. If you can do it, so can your team :).
Trust your instincts.
Reflecting on the past 7 years, there are times where I or another founder felt a certain way but we opted to let someone else make the decision for us. Don't just give up the power of decision because you think you're under-qualified. I strongly believe that founders have a lot more chops and know-how than they give themselves credit for, and oftentimes they defer to those with more experience on paper. You're a leader and it's your job to make sure your company is headed in the right direction; heed advice of course, but always trust yourself.
Avoid fat, stay lean.
Don't get complacent, and stay as lean as you can. It's not just about lean processes and quick turn-around times. This applies to everything you do at your startup, from hiring, to schwag, to perks, to the way you make money. Strive to look like an Olympic beach volleyball player, not a couch potato.
Don't spread out into hiring for niche roles until you really really need that expertise. Find a good balance between spoiling your employees and asking for a large commitment in time and effort. Can you save $5 per t-shirt from a cheaper schwag dealer? Treat the company's money like it's your own. Would you pay for that service if it was coming out of your bank account?
Spreading your wings can get you too close to the sun.
Meebo had remote offices all over the country, because we had a sales model that required touch points in local markets. Sales organizations naturally know how to work in this manner. Development organizations do not. It takes an immense amount of work, dedication, and expensive equipment to make satellite development offices work. Meebo had its fair share of problems with remote offices, from bad phone lines to missed meetings due to time zone changes.
If you decide to spread your offices to more than one location (even if it's just 30 miles away), make sure you understand all the necessary prep you must do to really make it work. "Work" means happy employees, consistent culture across locations, organized team meetings, consistent quality across telecommunications, and oh yeah, *lots* of frequent flier miles.
Nip problems in the bud ASAP.
Wounds that fester will rot and smell. If you notice an issue in your company that needs fixing, don't delay! It's much more efficient to pay attention to the problem before it gets out of hand. Smaller problems are easier to solve than large, complex ones that have been rooted in the system for a long time.
At Meebo, we tried very hard to smell when a problem was brewing, and smack the life out it as soon as we could. Teach your team to bring up problems and help find solutions, rather than sit on them or simply complain. When we did fail, we did post-mortems to figure out when the issue started and why we didn't catch wind of it sooner. Trust me, imbuing a culture of quick problem solving will save you months of time!
The end, for now.
There are so many other lessons that I could write about, but these are some that I feel should be spoken out loud and shared. Hopefully some nugget in here is useful to you, and if it is, that makes it all worth it.
Being an entrepreneur really is like growing up at warp speed, except you're probably in a cheap office and your CEO is not a cool, bald British man named Jean-Luc (or maybe he is, lucky you).
Many companies don't survive for 7 years so I feel really fortunate that I was able to help Meebo come to a good end. It was an awesome journey, and an experience this little nerd holds very, very dear to her heart.
Sandy Jen was the CTO and Co-founder of Meebo, a consumer Internet company that helped connect people to who and what was important to them. Meebo was founded in 2005 and Sandy led Meebo's engineering team. In June of 2012, Meebo was acquired by Google and Sandy now works on the Google+ team. Sandy, a rock climber and ultimate frisbee player, mentors young entrepreneurs and students in her spare time. She graduated from Stanford University with a B.S. in Computer Science, and is a recipient of the Founders Fund TechFellows Award in Engineering Leadership.