Like many food startups here in San Francisco, our food and beverage concept resorted to "pop-up" model to test the marketplace. After a year of living as a transient business, we are now launching our first physical store. This mini "graduation" as we'd like to call it made us reflect about our business and document what worked and what didn't -- both for ourselves and for aspiring entrepreneurs. The most common founder question we get is, "what is your advice on turning your dream into a reality?"
Living in the heart of the tech bubble, we meet entrepreneurs every day. Each founder's story is a tale of unique circumstances, so it is quite misleading to think there is a "correct" or "standard" way to bring an idea to life. However, there are several common ingredients that we believe is critical for success.
Ingredient #1: Passion.
If you are starting a business, make sure it's something you are passionate about. It's not as trite as it sounds. The word "passion" comes from the Latin word passiō which means "to suffer." When people think of startups, they often think of eccentric designers with Warby Parker glasses and disheveled-haired developers (or nerd-glam like Bravo's Silicon Valley.) For us, a food startup was far from sexy--if anything, it was more painful than sexy. Our hands are now coarse after months of washing beverage containers and our bodies worn after countless catering events. But we and our startups friends love what they do. We get a rush from the possibility of an idea, so a 1am power-programming session or the fifth hour of tea tasting is a self-inflicted, yet satisfying form of punishment. However, passion alone is not enough to start a business. Most individuals are passionate about something, so there the secret sauce for success goes beyond one trait.
Ingredient #2: Complementary skill sets that go beyond the basic designer + developer combination.
Make sure your founding team's skill set connects to the business. It may street smarts, functional knowledge, work style, or that random talent you honed that one summer in high school -- we believe your abilities do matter. Our business would have stayed a pipe dream had my business partner, Bin, and I come from different backgrounds. Fortunately for us, we both came from consumer goods and had complementary skill sets. Having grown up in the food business, I was familiar with the mechanics of operating a restaurant. Bin, a designer by trade, had always worked at consumer-centric companies, so building our brand's visual identity was just another day on the job.
However, we want to go beyond the obvious. Surely, a founding team with no programming skills faces an uphill battle if he or she pursues a consumer internet startup. The nuance is that founding teams often overlook the soft abilities. For example, we recently met a team that wanted to launch an enterprise software product. On paper, the team is superb -- Ivy league credentials, ex-Googlers, and mad developer skills -- but they lacked true sales expertise. A bonafide sales expert with a strong network is just as important as top-notch developers. For us, our business plan calls for wholesale distribution. It would be very hard for us to sell into retailers if neither of us came with consumer product expertise. Although your board can cover gaps to a certain degree, they are never on the ground long enough to contribute on a day-to-day level.
Ingredient #3: Ability to Identify, Assess, and Fill in the "White Space."
We wrote a lot about "white space" in our old posts. It requires a separate entry to adequately unpack this topic, but the simple idea is that your product must solve a problem or fulfill an unmet need. Even a small little bubble tea shop like us addresses a gap, whether it is by geographic proximity, quality of product, or overall experience. Sometimes, you'll have to expose the need or stimulate it; nevertheless your idea will only work if it fulfills an unmet need.
So to answer the question, we believe that there are three essential ingredients to growing an idea into a business. That being said, it does not mean a business will become successful if they have these particular traits. Other factors -- such as marketing conditions, competition, and just plain ole luck -- will affect how well your business performs.
For us, we're just happy to still be around after starting out as a pop-up one year ago. As we continue blogging for Huffington Post, we want a rich dialogue with entrepreneurial spirits across the world. No topic is off-limits, which is why the next post will be about the painful experience of government bureaucracy.
We look forward to sharing more with you.