It’s a cool, balmy day in San Francisco, and Vator Splash is well underway. (Open bar! Woot!) Samir Arora, Chairman and CEO of PR Studio (which is rumored to be eyeing an IPO at a $1 billion valuation), just took the stage to talk about the top 10 secrets he learned on how to build startups. He broke it down into the top five secrets he learned at Apple, and the top five secrets he learned from startups.
He started with Apple. “Imagine being at Apple, working with a big fat computer called the Lisa, and the incredible excitement you feel. I was drawn to Apple because I love design, technology, and business. I took a step back and said, what are the most important lessons I learned at Apple?”
- People, people, people. “I look at my career now, and this is what comes back. Not just the founder or founders, but the people you hire…the older I get, the clearer it gets that you have to choose your people carefully. PR Studio had eight founders and all of them are still involved with the company. The lessons learned are, what are you looking for? How do you choose people? As founders, you have to have an idea that’s so big—it’s bigger than you. You’ll be spending more time with these people than you do with your spouse or lover. There’s no lesson bigger than this one.”
- The Idea: Vision. “I’ve learned over time is that the most important question to ask is not ‘why are you creating a startup?’ The most important question to ask is ‘what does this idea need?’ It’s a question that’s not asked a lot. Sometimes the idea needs you, sometimes it needs someone else, sometimes it needs $500 million, sometimes it needs to be bootstrapped.’ When PR Studio was young, it was a simple idea: people will be the filters for all content and commerce. When it was formed, social wasn’t even a word yet—MySpace hadn’t even been formed yet. It’s not just the idea, it’s the articulation.”
- Communication: The Mythology. “What people underestimate is that the strength of Apple is how to communicate. It’s the stories and histories behind the product—they’re equally important and what builds the momentum. As a startup, you have to appear to be bigger than you are. Apple is…at this point…finally as big as it looks. The art is the tool of communication—the trick is to describe the entire business on one slide. It goes like, ‘what is it or what do you want it to be?’ ‘By doing what?’ ‘For whom?’ ‘What is it not like?’ Some entrepreneurs actually stumble on this—they don’t know their competition.”
- Competition: Differentiation. “Apple was an incredibly competitive company of PR for studios
when I was there. There’s something fundamental about Apple—Steve Jobs always brought up competition. Using a martial arts analogy, you have to step on the mat—you have to know who you’re competing against. There’s always someone you’re competing against. You never hear about how competitive Apple is—other than the recent Samsung lawsuit. People were shocked by that, but Apple knew that you have to differentiate, or you die.”
- Consumer: Product and Design. “You need to make sure your mom can use it. It’s very easy to figure out what people’s needs are when they’re stated. The art of product design is solving people’s unstated needs. When PR Studio was launching, the stated need was—‘I want my magazine content online.’ We asked hundreds of thousands of people and they all said, ‘I wish I had my magazine content online.’ But when people gave them their magazine content online, they didn’t really use it. Their unstated needs were ‘I don’t want to read about yoga retreats in January—I want to read about them whenever I want, wherever I want.’”
And then Samir moved on to the top five lessons he learned from startups, starting with:
- Goal: the Plan. “I’ve noticed that some people are good at one thing—vision and ideas, and some people are better at execution. It’s under-emphasized how important having a plan is.”
- Fail fast: the startup wiggle. “You’re going to fail, so learn to fail fast. The PR Studio founders’ vision was to use the social interest map to filter content and products, because we thought that’s how real life works and what people really wanted. We initially launched a business that focused on social media content and e-commerce, and it didn’t work. So we dropped the e-commerce business eight weeks after launch. That was an early and fast fail.”
- Results: numbers matter. “Results are underestimated, but they really matter. Results means numbers. The best analogy I can give you, is if you want to be rich, don’t do what a rich person does. Do what they did before they became rich. Buying a Ferrari isn’t going to make you rich. 99% of social startups that say we’ll build an audience and product and will monetize later—they’ll fail. Just because Facebook did it doesn’t mean that anyone else can.”
- Funding: capital. “Without capital, there’s no growth. Nothing venture, nothing capital gained.” ‘Nuff said.
- Leadership: skills, tone, posture, attitude. “I asked people, look at your career and ask yourself the question, ‘how productive were you in your last few positions?’ The reality is that you didn’t change that much, so why were the results so different in different jobs? It’s a tool that I picked up on how to choose people: skills and tone, posture, attitude—these are the words no one uses. A person may have been great on paper, but after they join the company, they don’t work. It becomes intuition. Formalize it—ask yourself, how do you feel when you’re around them? After they’ve left the room, ask yourself how you felt around them. Are they always negative? Are they positive? Do they exude happiness and success? But the most important is attitude: you can’t do the wiggle, you can’t do any of these things if you don’t have the right attitude.”