How To Build A Startup: One Board At A Time, Be Yourself, Get Plants

Top 11 tips for entrepreneurs.

Self-watering plant: It's convenient, but have we gone too far?

Since my house-painting business in my teens to my Clocktower Law days, I’ve been building startups and advising startups. Here’s a smattering of what I’ve learned.

11. Quit your day job.

It matters that you commit to your startup 100%. Just like you can’t be half pregnant, you can’t be half of an entrepreneur.

10. Get a real office.

When you work at home or in a rent-a-cubicle space, it is too easy to quit your startup. Sign a lease, make it real, have some skin in the game. Your customers will also appreciate that you are committed and not going away.

9. Be prepared to lose money.

When I launched Clocktower Law in 2001 (after not having practiced law for 6+ years while chasing the Internet 1.0), my MIT serial entrepreneur friends advised me to be prepared to lose money for 9 months. In today’s economy, I think budgeting for 12 months of losses is more prudent.

8. Don’t worry about what you can’t control.

Recessions have happened. They will happen again. Don’t worry about the global economy, global warming, or the global war on terror. Focus on what you can control: your attitude, your effort, your choices.

7. Change before you have to.

OK, I stole this one from GE legend Jack Welch. But it’s great advice. When you have cash in the bank and don’t need to borrow money, borrow money using cash as collateral. The worst time to borrow money is when you need it. The worst time to change your business is when a competitor forces you to. And by the way, steal great ideas from others.

6. Don’t fall in love with your idea.

Ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s execution that matters. Great execution of a good idea beats good execution of a great idea every day of the week. Examples: pet rock, Facebook, FailBlog.com. I know far too many PhDs who think that life (in general, and startup life, in particular) is or should be a meritocracy. It’s not. If it were, then all the PhDs would be CEOs. As one Internet (capital “I” in my book) meme famously says, “The dream is free. The hustle is sold separately.”

5. Don’t fall in love with patents.

Even if you have a great product, you don’t necessarily have something you can patent. Don’t waste your money on patents unless you have both (1) a product that is better/faster/stronger than the competition and (2) the product has a feature/benefit that is new to you (not just in your market but across all markets). And don’t be a patent troll, that’s not what the patent laws are for.

4. Don’t fall in love with your brand.

Every startup loves their name. Many fail to vet the domain and end up on the receiving end of C&D letters from trademark owners. Do a solid trademark search, pick a solid name (one you can get both in the real world and in the online world), and move on. It’s way less expensive to change your name in month #1 than it is in month #12. And don’t be a trademark bully or a cybersquatter, that’s not what trademark laws are for.

3. One board at a time.

One of my more satisfying non-startup projects, which turns out to be a good analogy for startups, is the treehouse I built with my kids. (See “The Perfect Treehouse” link below.) I had little prior building experience and had to figure things out as I went. The result was 13 feet off the ground, 2 stories high, and full of good memories. When friends saw the epic treehouse, they asked how I built it. The answer is simple: “One board at a time.” The same is true for startups. Be patient, know your goals (think “begin with the end in mind” to borrow from the excellent “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” book), and take it one board at a time.

2. Just be yourself and you’ll be fine.

This is some of the best advice one of my mentors ever gave me. I realized that I didn’t have to limit my blogging to patent and trademark law (which, in general, are very boring topics), and suddenly had the leading blog on technology, law, baseball, and rock ‘n’ roll! I realized that if I always told the truth, even if it was bad news, then I would never have to worry about an alibi. Today, one of the things I enjoy hearing when I meet people for the first time is, “Wow, you sound in person exactly like you sound on your website!” To which I reply, “Yes, that’s because none of that is fake!”

1. Get plants.

There will be times when you have done everything you can and you still have no customers. And you will not want to go to the office you have rented. The key to success, as my mentor told me, is not necessarily being in the right place at the right time. The key to success is being. There will be days the only thing you have to do at the office is water the plants.

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Erik J. Heels is a serial entrepreneur and the founder of Boston-based patent and trademark law firm Clocktower Law. As an entrepreneur, his successful exits include the Heels.com shoe store (sold to Erik’s co-founder in 2008), Verio (acquired by NTT for $6 billion in 2000), and his book “The Legal List” (publishing rights sold to Lawyers Cooperative Publishing in 1995). As a lawyer, his clients’ successful exits include KAYAK (kayak.com, acquired by Priceline for $2.1 billion in 2013), CloudSwitch (cloudswitch.com, acquired by Verizon in 2011), and Right Media (rightmedia.com, acquired by Yahoo! for $850 million in 2007).

Erik J. Heels