SM: What are some of your key learnings from this journey so far?
JW: At my first startup we cut off our consulting business to focus on raising venture capital that never materialized. Cash is king. Build the business that makes you money and keeps the doors open; it can finance your riskier investments.
During the early days at Shockwave.com I learned the perils of hyper-quick growth. Don’t hire faster than you can grow your management capabilities and revenues, and don’t spend all of your money unless you are certain that you are investing in things that will give the expected return.
Honest communication is of the utmost importance, in life and in business. Alissa and I were very different people. None of our friends thought we made a good couple early on, but we communicated very well so we converged. The key thing you can do as a manager is let people know where you are not happy with their performance. They might improve, they might quit, or you might fire them. Any solution is better than none. As an employee, your manager needs to know how he or she is doing. Their job is to inspire you and to give you an environment in which you can be successful. If you are not getting these key things, don’t be silent. I prepared my resume four times while at Shockwave.com, twice because I was sure I would be fired and twice because I was sure I wanted to quit. On one of those occasions when I thought I would be fired I was, instead, promoted. I ended up spending nearly five years there, learning many things I needed to learn to start my own company. I would not have stayed, nor learned so much, had I been timid. Speak your mind. Of course, do it politely and in the right setting, and it helps if people know that your tenacity springs from a passion for the team and product to succeed.
Invest in people. I met Gus Tai from Trinity Ventures at an M.I.T. club function more than ten years ago. We kept in touch, and he ended up funding PlayFirst. The value goes both ways – he would not have had such proprietary access to the deal had he not impressed me as someone with great integrity who could add tremendous value to my career.
Related to the previous two points, the most important thing Gus ever said to me was ten years ago: “I’m not going to fund your company, and nobody else will either. Go become an expert in something and come back to me in three years.” I waited over five, but I came back. Patience and persistence are good balances to passion.
Final thought, probably the most important in business: please the customer. Know your competitors but don’t focus on them. Please the customer. If you do everything else wrong but get this right it is better than the reverse. That is our most important guiding principle at PlayFirst. We never optimize for a buck at the customer’s expense.