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.

Entrepreneurs' Organization had seven of its members give TED-style talks on April 25. Ammar Selo

Overheard: 9 powerful quotes from TED-style talks by Houston entrepreneurs

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Moving the needle on something — whether it's changing the world or growing your business — hearing how others accomplished their own goals can be a beacon of hope and guidance for others.

The local Entrepreneurs' Organization chapter, EO Houston, hosted a series of seven TED Talk-style talks by members of the organization. These seven entrepreneurs discussed everything from being an introvert in a world of extroverts to the biggest security threat to American citizens: obesity. EO Talks took place at a breakfast event on April 25 at Houston Baptist University. If you missed the event, check out these overheard quotes from the day of discussions.

“When you get people involved in your organization, your job (as CEO) is alignment. Keep your team aligned with the strategic objectives of your company.”

— Paul Sarvadi, chairman, CEO and co-founder of Insperity, in his talk, "Take Care of Your People: An Entrepreneur's Journey." Connectivity is key, says Sarvadi.

“Taking care of your people is not rocket science. In fact, rocket science would be easier. It involves math and science — it works the same every day. But as soon as you put people in the mix, what worked yesterday might not work today.”

— Sarvadi continued in his talk about the importance of human resources in the the work place.

“What if everyone in the world knew what they stood for — imagine what that world would look like. We would know how we fit. We would be the best versions of ourselves. And, the world would be the best version of itself.”

— Winnie Hart, founder of TwinEngine in her talk, "What Do You Stand For?" Hart discussed finding one's identity and motivators — both in business and in life.

“Everywhere we look introverts are living in an extroverted world. It’s natural if you’re an introvert, like me, to feel a little insecure or that you feel the need to compete with your extraverted friends.”

— Darlene Gagnon, CEO and co-founder of Kinnect Global Management Services in her talk, "The Introverted Entrepreneur Competing in an Extroverted World." Gagnon says that introverts on track to be the most successful entrepreneurs with their execution skills, detail oriented nature, and ability to tune out the noise.

“It is the men in our lives that need to take action. Gentlemen, stand with us. Help us create a better presence so that we can sustain a future.”

— Shoshi Kaganovsky, CEO and founder of SensoLeak Global, in her talk, "Women Entrepreneurs—To Be..Or..To Be The Best." Kaganovsky compared how people say, "behind every great man is a woman," to how female leaders also need the support from the other gender.

“Entrepreneurship is an endless circle of reinventing yourself, being able to change, and keeping a positive attitude while doing so.”

— Kaganovsky continued in her talk as advice to the room of entrepreneurs.

“We can escape this crushing threat we call obesity. How are you going to make your escape?”

— Dr. Joe Galati, liver disease expert, radio host and author in his talk, "America's #1 National Security Threat." Galati argued that it's not Russia or North Korea that pose a major threat to the United States — it's our own health issues caused by obesity.

“We’ve all heard of the term ‘side hustle.' Maybe my dad invented the ‘side hustle.’”

— Chris Hotze, CEO and founder of Crescere Capital, in his talk, "Understanding the Power of Recurring Revenue." Hotze tells the story of how his father created a residential real estate side business out of necessity, and how that entrepreneurialism affected his own business career.

“As entrepreneurs, as long as we see control, we visualize an opportunity far greater than we see the risk.”

— Ali Nasser, CEO of AltruVista in his talk, "The Entrepreneur's Opportunity Cost," Nasser explains how entrepreneurs are hesitant to put money in the stock market, yet dive into ownership and risks for their own businesses.

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Houston immuno-oncology company reaches next FDA milestone, heads to phase 2 trial

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A Houston immuno-oncology company has recently made major headway with the FDA, including both a fast track and an orphan drug designation. It will soon start a phase 2 trial of its promising cancer fighting innovation.

Diakonos Oncology was born in 2016, the brainchild of Baylor researchers already hard at work in the realm of dendritic cell vaccines. Drs. Will Decker, Matt Halpert, and Vanaja Konduri partnered with Dan Faust, a Houston businessman and pharmacist, to bring their treatment to the public, says COO Jay Hartenbach.

The name Diakonos means “deacon or servant in Greek,” he explains. “A lot of companies end up focusing on treating a specific disease or cancer and what you end up having is a significant amount of potential but with a lot of tradeoffs and downsides. And so our goal is we need to eliminate the cancer but we can't harm or dramatically malign the patient in doing so.”

How do they do that? Because the therapy catalyzes a natural immune response, it’s the patient’s own body that’s fighting the cancer. Hartenbach credits Decker with the idea of educating dendritic cells to attack cancer, in this case, glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), one of the most aggressive cancers with which doctors and patients are forced to tangle.

“Our bodies are already very good at responding very quickly and aggressively to what it perceives as virally infected cells. And so what Dr. Decker did was basically trick the immune system by infecting these dendritic cells with the cancer specific protein and mRNA,” details Hartenbach.

Jay Hartenbach is the COO of Diakonos Oncology. Photo courtesy of Diakonos Oncology

But GBM isn’t the only cancer on which Diakonos Oncology has its sights set. Other notably stubborn-to-treat cancers that they’re working on include pancreatic cancer and angiosarcoma. The scientists are focused on meeting unmet medical needs, but also realize that treating such cancers would allow for the fastest determination of whether or not the treatment was effective.

The fast track designation, originally received last fall, means that the drug approval time for DOC1021, Diakonos’ glioblastoma vaccine, will be only six months. But Hartenbach highlights an additional boon, the fact that the special designation also allows for more frequent communications with the FDA.

“That’s very helpful for us, right as we're contemplating how to design the upcoming trials. From a business standpoint, it also is incredibly helpful because it provides a third party validation of what we're doing and the results that we're seeing,” he says.

What they’re seeing includes the survival of 13 out of 16 patients from the initial October 2021 enrollment. The three patients who passed away received the lowest dose of DOC1021. Hartenbach says that the remaining patients are thriving, with no serious adverse effects. With a median survival rate of 15 to 21 months, it’s hard to understate the significance of these patients’ success.

Diakonos Oncology is headquartered in Houston, with a staff of 10 in Space City and an additional eight distributed employees. Hartenbach says that the company’s hometown has been instrumental in its success. He mentions that the robust innovation of the Texas Medical Center meant that as the company has grown, there has never been a motivation to leave Houston.

“You're having a lot of both investment and companies actually moving to Houston,” Hartenbach says. “So we’ve been fortunate to have started there. There are bigger traditional biotech hubs, San Diego, Boston, and San Francisco, but Houston really is now putting itself on the map and it's getting a lot of attention.”

One of the companies responsible for that improved reputation? Diakonos Oncology and its promising approach to aggressive cancers.

Houston professor earns competitive NSF award, nearly $700,000 grant

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An assistant professor at Rice University has won one of the highly competitive National Science Foundation's CAREER Awards.

The award grants $670,406 over five years to Amanda Marciel, the William Marsh Rice Trustee Chair of chemical and biomolecular engineering, to continue her research in designing branch elastomers that return to their original shape after being stretched, according to a statement from Rice. The research has applications in stretchable electronics and biomimetic tissues.

“My goal is to create a new paradigm for designing elastomers,” Marciel said in a statement. “The research has four aims: to determine the role of comb polymer topology in forming elastomers, understanding the effects of that topology on elastomer mechanics, characterizing its effects on elastomer structure and increasing the intellectual diversity in soft matter research.”

Marciel, who joined the faculty at Rice in 2019, is one of about 500 researchers to receive the NSF's CAREER Award each year. The award recognizes early-career faculty members who “have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to the NSF.

In addition to supporting Marciel's research, the funds will also go toward creating opportunities in soft matter research for undergraduates and underrepresented scientists. It will establish a new annual symposium called the Texas Soft Matter Meeting, where community college teachers can participate in a soft matter laboratory module and students in the Research Experiences for Undergrads program at Rice will present their summer research.

Recently, Rice also launched the new Rice Synthetic Biology Institute, which aims to strengthen the synthetic biology community across disciplines at the university. It is part of an $82 million investment the university put toward synthetic biology, neuroengineering and physical biology in 2018.

A fellow team or Rice researcher is also working on wearable haptic accessories. A member of the team was recently named to the 2024 cohort of Rice Innovation Fellows. Click here to learn more.