- Sean Sheppard, a former Silicon Valley founder with nearly 30 years of experience, joined U.plus in 2020. Since then, he’s helped reposition the company from being a corporate venture builder to being a provider of innovation services.
- You don’t have to be an entrepreneur to work for a startup or innovation business. But you should have some important traits, including strong business acumen and communication skills.
- A company is nothing without its team. Too many founders make the mistake of hyper-focusing on a product while neglecting the importance of a team that works well together.
Sean Sheppard describes himself as a serial tech entrepreneur — but that wasn’t always the case.
He spent close to 30 years in Silicon Valley as more of a sales, marketing, and business founder than a tech expert. “I like to make the joke that I can’t even spell HTML,” he says.
But Sean’s Silicon Valley experiences helped him develop a deep understanding of business technology — particularly the way it can be used to advance human performance and make the world a better place.
That’s what he’s been doing for the past two years in his new venture as a Managing Partner at U.plus, a digital innovation company that helps large corporations launch startups and grow their market share.
In an episode of the 0 to 5 Million Podcast, Sean told hosts Shawn Finder and Ollie Whitfield what it takes to make it as a startup today and why people are such an important part of the formula.
Making a good company better
When Sean first arrived at U.plus, the company was already exceeding in product delivery, but it had a big problem. The team was missing an important piece of the equation: effective enterprise sales skills.
Sean says that the key is not to focus on merely selling a product to your prospective customers — you need to sell value.
“You always want to feel good about the product you’re offering to the market and that you can deliver on your promises,” Sean says.
Getting U.plus on the right track meant repositioning the company as a provider of an innovation service to clients rather than as a corporate venture builder.
Re-productizing the service also helped clients understand what, exactly, they were signing up for: the value of the growing market share for their startup.
Understanding your target customer’s business model and what drives their behavior is key to any organization’s success. Tying meaningful metrics to the value you provide to will show potential clients how your company can help them achieve their business goals.
What it takes to join a startup
Lacking enterprise business experience doesn’t mean a prospective employee can’t work for a startup or innovation business, Sean says.
But he does look out for several key traits when he’s hiring. Here are a few:
- Growth mindset: “Be a learn-it-all instead of a know-it-all,” says Sean. The ability to learn, adapt, and make changes quickly is vital to helping clients get what they need.
- Strong business acumen: Any startup team member needs to understand how the customer makes money in order to help them do it better. They should also be able to quickly develop expertise in the customer’s area, if necessary. New hires should understand that it’s all about the user and their problem, not about their own product or industry.
- Communication skills: Most sellers focus on the features and benefits of a product or service. “Nobody cares about that,” Sean says. “They care about their problems and whether or not you can solve them.”
- EQ over IQ: To solve problems, you have to be able to read a room. “Can you really understand what people are going through? And can you connect with them in a way that creates the trust and credibility necessary for them to feel comfortable and do business with you?” Sean says.
Building a team of employees that have — or can develop — these traits means you’ll be able to adequately serve your clients, whether they are in business technology or any other sector.
3 things to know about launching a startup in 2023
Even as the economy remains in a slump, plenty of funders still have enough money to go around. But in a volatile market, investors are especially choosy about how they spend their funds and where they invest.
Small-business founders, particularly those backed by venture capital (VC) and in the 0 to 5 million range, are doing everything they can to make their companies appear profitable. That way, they can keep investors happy and attract funders for future raises.
Yet even if you’re lucky enough to get VC funding, as many as 80 percent of funded startups fail. So how can you make sure yours thrives? Sean offers these three tips for founders.
1. Be problem-focused
One of the most common reasons startups fail has to do with people and markets — not products and technology.
Sean’s advice is to focus on your business and your clients rather than the news. Understand the core problems and challenges that your customers have and figure out how to solve them. That will help you maintain your place in your particular segment of the market.
“To me, the only metric that matters for startups when going from zero to one is, Can you find an early cohort of happy customers with a particular use case who are willing to tell the world they are better off with you than without you?” he says.
2. Start with one great hire
In a startup environment, who should be your first hire?
Shaun always looks for what he calls the “renaissance rep”: someone who has the ability to embrace ambiguity, uncover needs, and communicate those needs to the right people.
You’ll charge the renaissance rep with quickly assembling the cohort of customers that will be vital to your startup’s survival.
That customer base (and the revenue they bring in) allows you to start building an environment where scale is possible — and you can then begin to hire additional team members.
3. It’s about the hardware, not the software
People aren’t perfect. While hiring a strong leader or employees with the right skillsets is important, it’s not as important as assembling a dynamic team that performs well together and trusts one another.
One of the biggest mistakes small startups and organizations can make is to focus too much on big ideas like markets and futures while neglecting the due diligence it takes to hire a great team.
“When things are good, it’s easy. But when things get hard, that’s when you really find out who people are. And so I spend much more time on people now than I ever did in the past,” Sean says.
Sean knows from firsthand experience: Only when your startup has the right people behind it can everything else fall into place.
Over to you
Working in a startup requires a growth mindset, strong business acumen, good communication skills, and emotional intelligence. To succeed, focus on building a cohesive team and understanding your customers’ core challenges. Hire the right people, like a “renaissance rep”, and find an early cohort of happy customers to spread the word about your product or service.
In a rapidly changing business landscape, Sean’s insights into the importance of team, effective enterprise sales skills, and problem-focused strategies offer valuable guidance for startups and innovation businesses alike.