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.

Here's what to keep in mind when planning a virtual event. Getty Images

As the long-term repercussions of the coronavirus set in around the world, the events space was one of the first to realize its need to change course. Events across the world that were scheduled for March through June and beyond are being canceled, rescheduled and rethought.

As a business that has always operated in the live event and public space, my company, VISION Production Group had to quickly re-invent how our clients would be able engage with their audience under these strained circumstances.

When an event is canceled or postponed in times of crisis, businesses still have important messaging to get out. They still have a need to sell, still have a need to engage, still have the need to get organizational support. Shifting live attended events into an online experience helps those businesses shape their original event into a 'show' format that encapsulates the fundamentals of the live event in a creative manner ideal for remote viewing.

Instead of canceling the events, planners can be innovative and evolve their original format into one that allows them to still engage attendees and share their brand stories through virtual experiences.

Event marketing is all about putting yourself in the shoes of your customers — they were excited to come to your event and see the live event, network with others in their industry, and ask their lists of questions to ask during your Q&A sessions. So, what do virtual events look like, and how can you turn them in to an opportunity to add even more value and deliver an experience that makes your potential clients thrilled to be taking part in?

Creating a successful virtual event goes far beyond just a taped stream of speakers and the sharing of information. By utilizing the techniques below to create videos, creative content, 3D animation, motion graphics and other digital content, virtual events can become engaging productions that live on past the event itself.

Know your options

Pre-recorded videos

With a prerecorded event, you have the option to provide access to videos of the event on demand and can even consider additional revenue streams with pay-per-view options.

Utilize professional production and create an experience that combines brand elements and clear language with a captivating video presentation that makes attendees feel like they are turning their TVs onto a celebrity awards show. Once your pre-recorded virtual event has gone live, use video marketing to push out on your website or social media to share your brand story through packaged presentations.

VISION is currently working with both the Kinder Institute and the Houston Holocaust Museum to turn their major May events into pre-recorded productions that will be able to engage an even larger audience than their normal events.

Animated education content

Another forward-thinking technique is to produce 2D and 3D content to reduce the production costs found in traditional video. This can be interfaced with recorded and live footage or be used to walk attendees through a product demo or setup process with ease.

Think about utilizing this kind of virtual event if you are in an industry that relies heavily on trade shows. Instead of needing to be person-to-person for a demonstration, you can explain your product or service through 2D and 3D technology.

Live streaming

Get buy-in for digital events with a bit of live aspect, pulling groups together online for a shared remote experience. With a live stream event, you can have the benefits and production value of a pre-recorded event but incorporate the capability to take questions and engage your audience in real.

Remote viewers won't want to miss out on asking questions in this community format and you can record the stream for future use as well.

Virtual event panels and forums

With virtual panels and forums, you can live stream from your anywhere. Hosting an online group is a great way to engage your audience with a live Q&A session and provide the human connection, digitally.

This avenue is great if your event is typically comprised of panels and interactive breakout sessions for attendees.

Tips and best practices

Attendees flock to events to catch the latest innovations and network with industry leaders. Replicating that experience online isn't easy, but brands that get it right can attract big audiences, generate interest and increase brand visibility.

Use these tips to compel your audience to take action:

Develop a virtual event marketing strategy that aligns with your goals

With a great strategy, you can turn any onsite exhibit into a virtual event.

You may already offer online webinars or tutorials, but adding virtual events requires a little more planning. From accessibility to remote attendance monitoring, it's important to visualize each step in the strategy and planning of your event.

Choose digital technology tools and formats that convey your message and create a clear and compelling story and video script to keep attendees tuned in and engage virtual attendees using high-quality videos, animation and graphics.

Develop virtual events before a cancelation

Don't wait for your next live event to get canceled. Instead, put together video assets now. Drop the travel expenses and live stream a panel right from your office. Virtual events give your audience the flexibility to experience your brand and products from anywhere.

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Tracey Shappro is the president and CEO of Houston-based VISION Production Group.