Guest column

6 things this Houston entrepreneur wishes he’d known before starting his company

Learn from the mistakes of a successful Houston entrepreneur — from teamwork tips to reasons why you should network with other startups. Emilija Manevska/Getty Images

Recently, I was asked what it took to build a startup in Houston. It has taken me three attempts to create a successful startup, and there were a few things that I wish I'd known right out of the gate.

Whether your goal is to exit through a sale, an IPO, or turn your team of pirates into something that looks like a company, your business model will determine how you earn revenue and profits, and you want it to be repeatable and scalable to survive. With that in mind, here are the things I've learned along the way and what I wish I had known before I started my career as an entrepreneur.

Location does matter 

Houston is great for food, sports, and massive rainfall, but it's difficult to find a large pool of talented full-stack software engineers who speak cloud. I recruited some of the best, but it was incredibly difficult to find them compared to markets like Austin, Denver, and San Francisco.

I've seen successful companies build two separate offices, one for a headquarters, and another for development, but for us, we didn't need to build a massive team, so we remained close to customers in Houston and hired a remote team in California. If you need to build a large engineering team, consider a different city or go remote.

Startups have well-defined phases 

Your startup is not a snowflake. There have been thousands upon thousands of entrepreneurs that have succeeded and failed, and a few people have studied them to understand their histories and roadmaps. I wish I learned from them before I began, instead of spending every waking hour building a product, and competing with development time for research.

Looking back, we followed the same trail taken by many other B2B startups, like: Product-market fit, sales optimization, customer success, marketing focus, and eventually scale. It's important to know which phase you are in, who you need to hire in each phase, and most importantly, how your role changes in each one.

Partner roles need to be well understood 

One of largest factors on your probability of success is your team. When choosing your partners, I would suggest using an odd number of people to break stalemates, and to always have a CEO. One person needs to be in charge of execution, I can tell you first hand that committees do not scale well when you need a high velocity of decision making.

When choosing your team, make note of Cal Newport's research on career capital, which is the rare and valuable skills that one can leverage help your startup succeed. If your friend knows how to code or understands databases, ask yourself if he/she is the best in their class, because these are skills that you can hire for or contract out. The traits that accelerated our success were a unique blend of domain expertise, petroleum-specific software knowledge, deep business development expertise, and strong sense of diligence and commitment, which is what became our culture.

Finally, you and your partners need to know what needs to be done, and how you can individually contribute. Your contributions will change in each phase, and each of you need to understand how your roles will change, and be prepared to adapt quickly. If one of your partners writes the first line of code, doesn't mean they'll be the CTO when you have 150 people, the person that makes the first sale may not be the CRO when you have a 30 person salesforce. For those with a large ego, it's one of the hardest things to accept, but must be acknowledged in order for a team to succeed.

Your idea is probably wrong, but that is okay 

We used agile and lean philosophies to build our organization, and our approach was centered around what Steve Blank calls "customer discovery," the understanding of how to find a product-market fit. These methods subscribe to the hypothesis that successful startups are defined by their team's execution, and not the idea alone. We ditched our first idea after two weeks and pivoted to a new one, and we learned from our customers very quickly and created over 115 prototypes in 10 months before making the first sale. Each group of customers saw a different prototype, and each beta-tester used a different design, a different stack, a different user experience. We had to learn quickly. Agile and lean processes helped us iterate quickly and discover what our customers needed, but a highly skilled team was needed to figure out how to use the processes correctly.

Connect with others who have made it

Success is a multi-variate formula that compounds every good and bad decision unequally. If you don't know the answer to a key decision, your team can help, if they don't know, then find another team that has navigated your trail to provide advice.

In Houston, there are not many teams who have been through this, we leaned on help from the Austin network. I'm a big believer in helping the community of entrepreneurs, and I am more than happy to throw down the rope to help others in their ascent.

Money is your oxygen

Lastly, learning to hold your breath isn't a long-term strategy for deep sea dives. You'll need to know how many months of oxygen you have in your bank account at all times. There is no magic number of months for runway, but I can tell you from experience that three months is too little for oil and gas tech startups, especially when OilCo's take three to six months to sign and pay your invoices.

I can't emphasize how difficult starting a company can be. By reflecting on the points I mentioned here, I believe that I would have avoided some pitfalls, and maybe even made it a little farther in the journey.

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James Ruiz is the founder of Houston-based Q Engineering, a data driven solutions company for E&P professionals.

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Building Houston

 
 

A coworking company and a real estate firm have been tapped by The Ion. Courtesy of Rice University

Last week, Rice Management Co. announced the latest partners for The Ion. A Houston-based real estate management firm and a Dallas-based coworking company have signed onto the project.

Texas coworking company Common Desk, which recently opened a new space in Houston's east downtown, was tapped to develop and manage The Ion's more than 58,000 square feet of experiential, flexible office space on the second floor of the building.

"For a project as special as The Ion, it was important that we selected a flexible office space operator that understood the building's ethos as a space for collaboration and innovation," says Ryan LeVasseur, managing director of Direct Real Estate at RMC, in a news release. "From the moment we met with the Common Desk team, it was clear they represented the right balance of sophistication and excitement and shared a commitment to creating a sense of community."

Additionally, Common Desk will be responsible for a coffee bar and maintaining a vibrant and engaging space for tenants, startups, and community members.

"We're thrilled to be a part of this prestigious project and are looking forward to offering individuals, small businesses, and high-growth companies the chance to experience the unique programming and innovative spirit of the building," says Dawson Williams, head of real estate at Common Desk, in the release. "We're excited to be a strategic gateway to helping Houstonians experience all The Ion has to offer."

RMC tapped Transwestern to oversee property management for all of The Ion through its building, tenant, vendor, compliance, client, and administrative services.

"Very few companies have Transwestern's breadth of experience and proven success of managing high-quality, talent-attracting workplaces," LeVasseur says in the release. "Add to that the company's deep roots in Houston, and we're confident we're working with the best team to ensure a flawless, attractive, activated, and efficiently operated hub for the growth of Houston's innovation ecosystem."

Based in Houston, Transwestern has over 400 properties locally across office, multifamily, health care, and other industries.

"Transwestern is excited to work alongside Rice Management Corporation as property and facilities manager for The Ion, while contributing to its mission of innovation, collaboration and inclusion," says Kevin Roberts, Southwest President at Transwestern, in the release. "As Transwestern continues to elevate our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, we are proud to stand alongside The Ion in supporting minority and women-owned businesses in enabling innovation that will shape the future of Houston."

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