Lessons for Startups from the Election

1972 Nixon campaign tie

November 13, 2016: For those of you who went to church on the Sunday I’m writing this after the Election, you probably heard this morning a sermon of comfort aimed at congregants who voted their conscience for either of the two major candidates. It was a week for the history books, and it is full of lessons that transcend politics. My “Re-elect Nixon” tie from 1972 (photo above) that I wear to the polls every 4 years has now been consigned to ancient history.

Allow me please to draw some nonpartisan guidance for startups based on this brutal fight to the finish for the Presidency:

1. Keep your message simple, and always lead with it. Trump may have rambled all over the place in his unprompted stump speeches and debates, but his red ball caps emblazoned with “Make America Great Again” created a consistent and lasting impression. Ronald Reagan launched that same slogan in 1980, and even Bill Clinton reprised it during his first campaign, but it will now always be associated with Trump. To the extent you can, as part of your branding, come up with something that simple and that sticky, your odds of attracting customers increase dramatically. I’ve seen way too many entrepreneurs try to sell a complicated vision and not hammer home the core of what they are promising to deliver. Yes, indeed, that sounds like the wonk of Hillary Clinton. Bernie Sanders didn’t have the hats, but even he was pretty good at writing and selling his very condensed message about the rigged system. If your product is intangible, e.g. software, you’ve got many temptations to talk about “how good it is going to be,” but customers pay for the benefits they can enjoy today. Make that software great right now.

2. External events can throw you off course. I’ve written about this many times, but we all now operate in a highly connected and relatively transparent business universe, and we are subject to powerful impacts beyond our control and beyond our ability to predict. No fiction writer could have envisioned Anthony Weiner as a key player in what Clinton is now blaming as her downfall – that last-ditch FBI investigation of her emails. She had everything pretty well baked, including the big fireworks show, but her own internal data apparently showed a dramatic shift in the rust belt voting after James Comey delivered his letter to Congress a little over a week before Election Day. You may think you have your make-the-company deal wrapped up, but until the money is in the bank, don’t count it. Last minute surprises are common in financing transactions and big customer contracts. All those deals require constant attention and monitoring by you and your executive team until they are done. You may have a competitor maliciously intervene, a legal threat arise, a key player leave, transfer or die, and any number of other calamities beset you on the verge of your finest hour. I could write a few thousand words just on personal war stories of that nature.

3. Involve yourself in the world around you – your town, your market sector, your regulatory bodies, and any other parts of your ecosystem that can dramatically affect your planning. There’s a significant rise of political activism in the Austin tech scene now that we’ve lost Uber and Lyft and are seeing threats to short term rentals by an overly intrusive city council. We’re all mired in the same traffic congestion that can only be resolved by civic action. The $720M road bond that passed last week is just a baby step toward accommodating the needs of the nation’s fastest growing city, and it’s time for some technology-based alternatives to more asphalt. As an example, it is my personal observation as one who lives in Austin but is frequently in Atlanta that Austin could benefit mightily from getting employers to stagger work hours. Austin is easily navigable most of the day but has terrific peaks at morning and evening rush hours. Atlanta, on the other hand, is “rolling thunder” 24/7 and has an insatiable need for new infrastructure now that it has emerged from the Great Recession. It behooves us all to be highly engaged in the Public Square and to be influencers as well as taxpayers in our respective metro areas. Similarly, don’t be a stranger in your marketplace. Get to know your competitors to the extent possible. Work the trade shows. Size up your enemies. Bluff a lot. Be alert to threats. Steal employees. Protect your own team. Play fair, but play both offense and defense when you have the opportunity outside the comfy confines of your own office. And, if you’re in a regulated industry, don’t cut corners. I’ve been involved in enough bank startups and now the biomedical arena and have learned to appreciate that regulations must be followed but don’t necessarily have to be logical. The tax code itself is a great example of that, but some sectors would benefit from losing about 2/3 of their existing regulations and paying attention to the ones that actually matter. Oh, I think Trump promised to fix that, so you may want to ignore that bit of advice.

4. Count on every week bringing new challenges. If things are rocking along too smoothly, you’re probably not trying hard enough. You need to be racing at the limits, because your competitors are doing just that. The closer you are to those limits, the bigger mistakes you’ll make, but your end result may be the coveted checkered flag. This coming week and in the months ahead, you have to internalize what a GOP-controlled government means to your business. Your trade associations are probably in the thick of that already. I’m already hearing of a shift of research dollars from applied to basic research. If you’re the president of a research university, what does that mean to your strategic plan, your core competencies, your staffing, and your R&D sponsor relationships? If your startup is commercializing university IP, does that shift affect you? It might, or it may be too far into the future to suggest any immediate reaction. The stock markets at least seem pretty calm at the moment about this transition of power, which is a good sign, but nothing will be business as usual with such a radical change in leadership.

There were quite a few “Amens” in my large Episcopal church this morning, not customary practice amidst the liturgy.  They attest to how eloquently our preacher addressed the lessons of the past week and how important these matters are to all aspects of our lives.

<photo by the author>