Mar 11 2021

Second Verse, Same as the First…Except Way Better

Almost a year into my second journey as a startup CEO at Bolster, and I’m getting more and more questions from other CEOs about what it’s like doing a second startup after almost 20 years at the first one…and achieving pretty good scale by the end.  The short answer is, it’s the same, only it’s way better.  Here’s why.

I’m more confident.  So is our whole founding team.  When Jack and I started Return Path, we were 29.  This time, we were 49 — and the average age of the founders was probably 46 or 47.  The bottom line is that we don’t know everything about the business we’re building, but we know what we’re doing in terms of building a business, a startup, a software company, a service-oriented business, leading a team, planning, executing, and on and on.  Confidence in all of those areas means large portions of our day and brain space are freed up to focus on the actual construction of the business without worrying if we’re doing things right or wrong.

It’s much easier to build a startup today.  1999 wasn’t the dark ages, but it feels like a different millennium in terms of what it’s like to start a technology company from scratch.  The cloud and micro services/APIs mean that we are able to build our platform much more quickly at much lower cost than in the past.  And in terms of tooling the business, we got up and running with about 20 different DIY cloud/SaaS solutions in about 6 weeks for a cost of less than $10k/year.

We are sharper on execution and impatient for success.  Your first startup in your 20s is a lot about “enjoying the startup journey.”  This time around, our team is significantly more focused on critical stage-gate success metrics.  In both cases of course, the objective was to win, but this time around, we are much more focused on getting to that point sooner and with less waste.

We are a lot more productive.  Ok, fine, we’re cheating because of COVID and working from home.  No train commutes.  No plane trips.  No water cooler chatter.  No fluff.  It’s not sustainable, and I’ll write about that more in a future post.  But it’s leading to a surge of productivity like I’ve never experienced or seen before in my career.  I do like to think at least some of it comes from professional maturity — we’ll see when life returns to something more closely approximating normal.

I am having a blast being on the front lines.  I went from running a 500-person company, where I’d honed my job and skill set around communication, people issues, and mobilizing the army to go do things…to spending less than 5% of my time running the company and managing people.  Now depending on the moment, I’m an SDR, a customer success manager, a product manager, and a marketing copywriter.  And probably some other things, too.  And I love every minute of it.  It’s a lot more fun to see the direct impact of my actions on the business as opposed to only really seeing the direct impact of my actions on the people in the business (and occasionally then on some aspect of the business as an individual contributor).

Maybe I’m not having a typical second startup experience.  I know some friends who had successful first exits and hated going back to square one, or failed at a second business and were really disappointed about it, only to shift careers.  But my experience so far is a much better second verse, even though it’s a bit like the first.