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

 
 

Here's your latest roundup of innovation news you may have missed. Photo via Getty Images

It's been a busy month so far with plenty of Houston startup news, major ecosystem events, and more — and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, Solugen raises another mega round of funding, CorInnova snags a prestigious award, applications are open for two programs, and more.

Houston unicorn chemicals company raises $200M series D

Solugen closed its Series d funding round at $200 million. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based Solugen has announced its latest round of investment to the tune of $200 million. The company, which reached unicorn status after its $357 million series C round last year, uses its patented Bioforge processes to produce "green" chemicals from bio-based feedstocks.

"Solugen is reimagining the chemistry of everyday life with enzymes found in nature. We make chemicals better, faster, cheaper, and without fossil fuels from right here in Houston, Texas. Whether you care about the climate, local competitiveness, or just plain old profits, we have good news: it's working," the company states in its news release.

"Our first Bioforge has been operating for a year and Solugen is running a nearly nine figure business with high margins selling commodity and specialty chemicals," the statement continues. "We have established ourselves with top tier customers for our existing solutions and fortune 100 technology partners to build a robust pipeline of future molecules that will help us achieve our goal of 10 mil tons of CO2 removed from the atmosphere."

According to the company, this latest raise has increased Solugen's valuation to over $2 billion. The round was led by investors Kennivik, Lowercarbon Capital, and Refactor Capital.

Houston health tech company wins funding from national organization

CorInnova has won a prestigious award. Photo via corinnova.com

Houston-based CorInnova was named one of five awardees from the National Capital Consortium for Pediatric Device Innovation's “Make Your Medical Device Pitch for Kids!” competition. Each honoree received a share of $150,000 in grant funding from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The awards ranged from $20,000 to $50,000 to support the advancement of pediatric medical devices.

CorInnova, founded in TK, has designed a minimally invasive biventricular non-blood contacting cardiac assist device to treat heart failure.

The 2022 competition was moderated by California-based MedTech Innovator. The other four pediatric device innovation awardees included:

  • Innovation Lab, from La Palma, California, created a mechanical elbow brace stabilizes tremors for pediatric ataxic cerebral palsy to improve the performance of Activities of Daily Living.
  • Prapela, based in Biddeford, Maine, created the first innovation to improve the treatment of apnea of prematurity in over twenty years.
  • Tympanogen, from Richmond, Virginia, replaces surgical eardrum repair with a nonsurgical clinic procedure
  • Xpan, based in Concord, Ontario, has created a universal trocar enables safest and most dynamic access and effortless upsizing in conventional/mini/robotic procedures.

"We are delighted to recognize these five innovations with critical NCC-PDI funding that will support their journey to commercialization. Improving pediatric healthcare is not possible without forward-thinking companies that seek to address the most dire unmet needs in children’s health,” says Kolaleh Eskandanian, vice president and chief innovation officer at Children’s National Hospital and principal investigator of NCC-PDI, in a news release. "We know all too well how challenging it is to bring pediatric medical devices to market, which is why we have created this rich ecosystem to identify promising medical device technologies and incentivize investment. We congratulate this year’s winning innovators and applaud their efforts to help bridge these important care gaps that are impacting children.”

Houston real estate tech scores funding from Amazon entity

DOSS is a real estate tech company. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based DOSS, which was chosen this summer for the inaugural Black Founders Build with Alexa cohort, has received funding from the Amazon Alexa Fund. The startups in the program were selected based on their ability to innovate with Alexa and build the next generation of voice, artificial intelligence, and ambient experiences technology.

DOSS is a digital brokerage that uses tech to make homeownership more affordable, and the company has developed a technology where customers are able to ask for real-estate advice and tips, search for home listings, get neighborhood information, and recent sales data, according to a news release from the company. They will also eventually be able to request to be connected with home service providers that serve their respective area.

CEO Bobby Bryant and COO Chris Norton founded DOSS in 2016. Last year, the company participated in the Google for Startups Black Founders program, receiving $100,000 from the fund.

TMC Innovation's Biodesign program applications open

Applications are open through the end of the year. Photo via tmc.edu

Applications are now open for the 2023 TMCi Biodesign program at the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Factory. TMC is looking for candidates with relevant backgrounds for starting a digital health or medical device company, such as: engineering, medicine, hospital administration, R&D (prototyping), software development, finance, legal, regulatory, reimbursement, or technical. Candidates must have at least 1 to 2 years of industry work experience or have prior startup history. It is preferred that applicants have earned an advanced degree.

The position is an in-person, full-time requirement that will begin August 2023 and will span nine months with an opportunity to extend for up to two months.

Applications close on December 31. Candidates will undergo a series of interviews in January and then will be extended offers in the spring.

HX Venture Fund calls for startups to meet visiting VC

Calling all Houston tech startups. Image via Screenshot

HX Venture Fund, a fund-of-funds that encourages and enables non Houston-based VCs to tap into the local innovation ecosystem, is hosting Creighton Hicks, partner at Austin-based LiveOak Venture Partners, later this month.

The organization is looking for Houston startups that are building a tech or tech-enabled services company raising a seed to series B round now or in the next six months. Startups have until November 18 to submit their interest via an online form.

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