My family joined a CSA this year (for those of you who aren’t familiar - it’s Community Supported Agriculture; you prepay for a fractional share of season’s produce.) Each week, we receive a basket of produce that’s “in” right now. We just got the first basket, and I knew what to do with most of it: onions, fingerling potatoes, asparagus, farm eggs. But, the basket also contained an unexpected twist: two long red stalks that hardly fit sideways in the fridge. I knew those stalks were rhubarb, and I even knew (more or less) what to do with them (Rhubarb pie was Grandpa’s favorite). The “how” was a different story... I’m not much of a baker anyways, but I had no idea how to start. Do you peel them? Blanch them? Just cut em up?
Fortunately, Google returns a few million results for that search, and right at the top was a recipe for Grandma’s Rhubarb Pie. That HAS to be good, right? Well, ok, it’s actuallystrawberry-rhubarb pie and I didn’t actually make the crust (I bought some organic, whole-grain, full-of-flax-and-hemp-meal freezer crusts from the local co-op market.) No need to be a purist while making my first ever rhubarb pie. After re-arranging and working around the fridge-hogging stalks for a few days, it was time to get them into a pie. I was so proud of my effort, I posted a picture of the big achievement on Facebook.
Let’s be honest - aesthetically, it’s a highly average looking pie captured in sloppy iPhone photography, but of course, that rhubarb pie picture drew twice as many likes and comments as anything substantive I post on Facebook.
Fortunately, Devin saw it too. She saw the metaphoric business culture connection right away. "I see a blog post coming,” she replied, “Taking what you get? Making something sweet out of something unexpected?"
Hmmm. Great insight - Devin is on to something. With just a little tweak of her words, it turns out this little CSA experiment is indeed a whole lot like company building.
Count on an unexpected twist.
We started in the very apex of the dot-com heyday. That was before the days of the “lean startup,” so you didn’t need a functioning business or a prototype or even any real model for how you’d ever make revenue, much less profit from it -- you simply needed an idea for attracting eyeballs. Then, you’d pitch that to a bunch of investors so you could use other people’s money to build enough of the idea that someone else would buy it for even more money. More eyeballs, more money - and soon everyone’s all fantastically rich!
We had a couple good “eyeballs” ideas - but our Board was wise enough to see through all that stuff. Even before the crash - which happened a few short months later - they counseled us to “go sell customers, not investors.” So that’s what we did. Things got real interesting when 9/11 happened shortly after the market crash. We had to pivot a few times into different service offerings to keep revenue flowing through those economic dark days, but those twists led directly to our core knowledge-sharing product and the market focus that has sustained us since.
Figure out how to use what you have.
We didn’t have any choice, really. Without a pile of other people’s money to chase our grandiose ideas, we just had to press on with what we had. Commercial integration/development opportunities were drying up, but some friends needed help on a big Federal contract, so we became “strategic consultants.” We didn’t have a PR budget, so we bought the coffee and spent time talking with a lot of friends of friends of friends. Our controller back then was our CFO and was actually a sports-event-photographer with his own business to run most days. Scott W had the biggest dining room table, so his house quickly became the conference room. We couldn’t justify an expensive caterer for the company picnic back then, so Doug bought a bunch of burgers at Costco, we made it a potluck (we have a lot of great cooks), and Scott and I manned the grill. Scott’s wife Debbie made us wear aprons that said “here to serve” just to keep it real, and everyone had a fine time. Sure it would have been good fun to have the marquis office in the hipster location with an array of foosball tables lined up beside the keg and the oxygen bar, but I suspect we wouldn’t have had that office for more than a year or so. Meanwhile, the discipline we learned while bootstrapping - using what we have - serves us to this day.
(As a startup) No need to be a purist, just get it done.
Understand that I’m not talking about ethics, here. You should be a purist there. When it comes to best practices and strategies and tactics thought leaders disseminate into business culture, you can adapt. So have a look at the recipe, if you will, but add some strawberries, and just buy the crust.
For example, we totally agree with the traditional wisdom on “focus” and “clear lines of responsibility.” We understand how to build a great looking org chart that reflects these principles, but we don’t really have one. As we started pursuing our commercial SaaS offering in earnest, we brought in a President for our Federal business, but he also picks up the bagels when customer comes to visit. When we picked up our first cost-plus Federal contract - we “upgraded" our accounting system (that’s another story) and added a controller to our finance team; but she’s also our operations manager and also buys the milk and orders the coffee. Chris spends a lot of his time with our customers to help adapt our systems to the very specialized needs of their data centers - yet he’s the usually the one who changes light bulbs or hangs the pictures around the office. We all know our roles - but in a small company, you just need to get it done.
It’s better in season.
It takes time, but there’s often a reward for the patient pursuit of excellence. I guess you can always go to the store and buy something labeled as a tomato in April. (Or you can spend time pitching your big idea to raise the funds to make that big splash on the trade show circuit.) We’d rather wait for those homegrown CSA tomatoes and fresh basil that are surely coming in August.
The rhubarb pie turned out pretty good, by the way. I wonder what surprise we’ll have in next week’s box …
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