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 logistics software startup secures $8.4M series A from international investors

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A Houston-based software company that's reducing cost and risk in the marine supply chain has closed its latest round of funding.

Voyager Portal, a software-as-a-service platform closed an $8.4 million series A investment round this week. The round was led by Phaze Ventures, a VC fund based in the Middle East, and included new investors — ScOp Venture Capital, Waybury Capital and Flexport. Additionally, all of Voyager's existing investors contributed to this round.

Voyager has reported significant growth over the past two years since its $1.5 million seed round. Between Q3 2020 to Q3 2021, the company's revenue has increased 13 times and was up 40 percent from Q2 2021. Voyager now manages over $1 billion in freight on the platform, according to a news release.

“Voyager Portal was created to significantly reduce cost, risk, and complexity when transporting bulk materials around the world,” says Matthew Costello, CEO and co-founder of Voyager, in the release. “The last two years have demonstrated just how critical shipping bulk commodities is to global markets – freight rates have increased and port congestion is at an all-time high – accelerating the demand for Voyager’s solution.”

Costello says the fresh funds will be used to support Voyager's continued growth.

“With our Series A funding, we’ll be able to expedite our product roadmap to support an international client base whilst expanding our engineering, development, marketing and sales teams internationally," he adds.

Matthew Costello Voyager Matthew Costello is the CEO and co-founder of Voyager.

Built from the ground up, Voyager's software was created to replace the antiquated and complex legacy systems the market has seen for decades. The platform allows companies to seamlessly collaborate in real time over a single shipment.

“Voyager's implementation has been hugely impressive,” says Adam Panni, operations manager at OMV, a multinational energy company based in Austria, in the release. “The low-code functionality allows almost real-time modifications to the developing workflows and reporting capabilities with no lengthy development and minimal testing prior to implementation. By digitizing data capture across all our physical movements, we are able to analyze our business much better, enabling faster and smarter decisions driven by data. This, in turn, will provide significant, quantifiable cost reductions for our business.”

Abdullah Al-Shaksy, co-founder and CEO of Phaze Ventures says the platform is evolving the industry as a whole at an important moment.

“Voyager is changing the way companies are thinking of their global shipping operations,” he says. “Global supply chains are becoming increasingly complex and strained, and there is an incredible treasure trove of data that organizations are underutilizing in their decision-making process. We believe what Voyager has created for their customers across the globe will revolutionize this space forever.”

Rice research: Revisiting the merits of nondigital data collecting

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Academics are learning quickly that investigations based on data from online research agencies have their drawbacks. Thousands of such studies are released every year – and if the data is compromised, so too are the studies themselves.

So it’s natural for researchers, and the managers who rely on their findings, to be concerned about potential problems with the samples they’re studying. Among them: participants who aren’t in the lab and researchers who can’t see who is taking their survey, what they are doing while answering questions or even if they are who they claim to be online. In the wake of a 2018 media piece about Amazon’s Mechanical Turks Service, “Bots on Amazon’s MTurk Are Ruining Psychology Studies,” one psychology professor even mused, “I wonder if this is the end of MTurk research?” (It wasn’t).

To tackle this problem, Rice Business professor Mikki Hebl joined colleagues Carlos Moreno and Christy Nittrouer of Rice University along with several other colleagues to highlight the value of other research methods. Four alternatives – field experiments, archival data, observations and big data – represent smart alternatives to overreliance on online surveys. These methods also have the advantage of challenging academics to venture outside of their laboratories and examine real people and real data in the real world.

Field experiments have been around for decades. But their value is hard to overestimate. Unlike online studies, field experiments enhance the role of context, especially in settings that are largely uncontrolled. It’s hard to fake a field experiment in order to create positive results since each one costs a considerable time and money.

And field experiments can yield real-life results with remarkable implications for society at large. Consider one experiment among 56 middle schools in New Jersey, which found that spreading anti-conflict norms was hugely successful in reducing the need for disciplinary action. Such studies have an impact well beyond what could be achieved with a simple online survey.

The best way to get started with a good field experiment, Hebl and her colleagues wrote, is for researchers to think about natural field settings to which they have access, either personally or by leveraging their networks. Then, researchers should think about starting with the variables critical for any given setting and which they would most like to manipulate to observe the outcome. When choosing variables, it’s helpful to start by thinking about what variable might have conditions leading to the greatest degree of behavior change if introduced into the setting.

Archival data is another excellent way to work around the limitations of online surveys, the researchers argue. These data get around some of the critical drawbacks of field research, including problems around how findings apply in a more general way. Archival data, especially in the form of state or national level data sets, provide information and insight into a large, diverse set of samples that are more representative of the general population than online studies.

Archival data can also help answer questions that are either longitudinal or multilevel in nature, which can be particularly tricky or even impossible to capture with data collected by any single research team. As people spend increasing amounts of time on social media, the internet also serves as a source of newer forms of archival data that can lend unique insights into individuals’ thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors over time.

With every passing year, technology becomes increasingly robust and adept at collecting massive amounts of data on an endless variety of human behavior. For the scientists who research social and personality psychology, the term “big data” refers not only to very large sets of data but also to the tools and techniques that are used to analyze it. The three defining properties of Big Data in this context include the speed of data processing and collection, the vast amount of data being analyzed and the sheer variety of data available.

By using big data, social scientists can generate research based on various conditions, as well as collect data in natural settings. Big data also offers the opportunity to consolidate information from huge and highly diverse stores of data. This technology has many applications, including psychological assessments and improving security in airports and other transportation hubs. In future research, Hebl and her team noted, researchers will likely leverage big data and its applications to detect our unconscious emotions.

Big data, archival information and field studies can all be used in conjunction with each other to maximize the fidelity of research. But researchers shouldn’t forget even more old-fashioned techniques, including the oldest: keen observation. With observation, there are often very few, if any, manipulations and the goal is simply to systematically record the way people behave.

Researchers – and the managers who make decisions based on their findings – should consider the advantages of old-style, often underused methodologies, Hebl and her colleagues argue. Moving beyond the college laboratory and digital data survey-collection platforms and into the real world offers some unparalleled advantages to science. For the managers whose stock prices may hinge on this science, it’s worth knowing – and understanding – how your all-important data was gathered.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Mikki Hebl, the Martha and Henry Malcolm Lovett Professor of psychology at Rice University, and Carlos Moreno and Christy Nittrouer, who are graduate students at Rice University. Additional researchers include Ho Kwan Cheung, Eden B. King, and Hannah Markellis of George Mason University.

10+ can't-miss Houston business and innovation events for December

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This month, Houstonians have yet another good batch of in-person and online innovation events, and you and your tech network need to know about them.

Here's a roundup of virtual events not to miss this month — like pitch nights, workshops, conventions, and more.

Note: This post might be updated to add more events.


December 1 — Fall 2021 D2K Showcase

The Rice D2K Lab is a hub for data science education. In the interactive D2K Showcase, you will explore D2K students' end-of-semester projects sponsored by D2K Affiliate members, researchers and community partners. Interact with student teams in the poster session and learn more about their projects. Vote on your favorite project and team as students compete for cash prizes.

The event is on Wednesday, December 1, at 5 pm. It's free and happening at Rice University (Duncan Hall - McMurtry Auditorium). Click here to register.

December 2 — TeeMates Launch Party

Join TeeMates for happy hour in town at The Cannon's new sportstech and media location. DJ, drinks, prizes, local businesses, and golf.

The event is on Thursday, December 2, at 4 pm. It's free and happening at The Cannon Sports + Media (5353 W Alabama St. Ste 450). Click here to register.

December 3 — Thought Leader Series: A Conversation with Houston's Medical Community

The Greater Houston Partnership invites you to the Thought Leader Series: A Conversation with Houston's Medical Community. This virtual event will feature a dynamic panel discussion with some of the region's top minds working to advance health care and medicine for the future. These leaders will discuss topics ranging from the region's health care system including funding, workforce, technology/innovation, equity and living in a post-pandemic world.

The event is on Friday, December 3, at noon. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

December 5-9 — 23rd Annual World Petroleum Congress

Returning to the United States for the first time in over 30 years, the 23rd World Petroleum Congress will transform Houston into the epicenter of the global energy debate. Recognized as the energy capital of the world, the host city is home to 4,600 energy firms and a hub of technological innovation and entrepreneurship both within the energy sector and across aligned sectors. The Congress will gather together industry and government leaders from across the world to address all aspects of the industry from technological advances in upstream, midstream, and downstream operations to the role of natural gas and renewables, management of the industry and its social, economic, and environmental impact.

The event is from Sunday, December 5, through Thursday, December 9, at George R. Brown Convention center. Click here to register.

December 7 — Latest Trends & Opportunities in Sports Tech

Join DivInc on December 7th for an in depth discussion focused on trends, challenges and opportunities in this city and beyond at the intersection of sports and technology! The panel consists of subject matter experts from HTX Sports Tech, Intel, 2K, and The Cannon. We will also be sharing details and answering questions regarding upcoming Sports Tech accelerator.

The event is on Tuesday, December 7, at 4 pm. It's free and happening at The Ion (4201 Main St). Click here to register.

December 8 — Houston Veterans In Residence Showcase

Bunker Labs’ Veterans in Residence Showcase is a nationwide event spanning across twenty-two cities and 2 virtual cohorts, celebrating the almost two-hundred veteran and military spouse entrepreneurs launching their startups and businesses from our recent cohort. It gives you a chance to network with local participants. Become part of your local business community and learn how you can get involved by patronizing, investing in, or partnering up with veterans and military spouse entrepreneurs.

The event is on Wednesday, December 8, at 6 pm. It's free and happening at WeWork (The Jones Building - 708 Main St.) Click here to register.

December 8 — The Future of Energy Celebration

Join energy tech leaders right after World Petroleum Congress for drinks, live music and startups to celebrate the Future of Energy — powered by Halliburton Labs, Accenture, Greentown Labs and The Ion.

The event is on Wednesday, December 8, at 6 pm. It's free and happening at 8th Wonder Brewery (2022 Dallas St). Click here to register.

December 8 — HTXelerator's Pitch Event

The Pitch for the inaugural cohort is now upon us and you're invited to be a part of the celebration! Hear from the HTXelerator's nine finalists as they deliver a mock campaign speech for city council. Enjoy drinks and light bites in the courtyard of The Cannon Downtown as the judges crown first, second, and third place to close out the inaugural year.

The event is on Wednesday, December 8, at 7 pm. It's free and happening at The Cannon Tower @ Amegy on Main (1801 Main St). Click here to register.

December 10 — Feedback Friday: Strategy Planning for 2022

Join this session with Impact Hub Houston Board Member and startup advisor Brandy Guidry to receive feedback on your business goals for 2022.

The event is on Friday, December 10, at 1 pm. It's free and happening at The Cannon Tower @ Amegy on Main (1801 Main St). Click here to register.

December 14 — UpSkill Works Forum: New Mission, Transferable Talent: What Employers Need to Know About Hiring and Retaining Veterans

With more than 250,000 veterans in residence, Houston has the country's second highest veteran population. Veterans are a diverse, highly skilled talent population that can bring valuable experience to a workplace but can be difficult to effectively access and engage. Join the UpSkill Houston initiative, NextOp Veterans Executive Director Stephanie Drake, and area employers to learn how to attract, hire, support, and retain talented veterans in your workforce.

The event is on Tuesday, December 14, at noon. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

December 14 — gBETA Houston Fall 2021 Cohort Pitch Night

Pitch Night is a celebration of all of the current gBETA cohorts. It's an exclusive reception during which participating companies have the opportunity to pitch to an audience of entrepreneurs, mentors, investors and community members. Join either in-person or virtually for one or more Pitch Night events.

The event is on Tuesday, December 14, at 5:30 pm. It's free and happening online and at Cannon West Houston (1334 Brittmoore Rd #1327). Click here to register.