Self-awareness — as I mentioned, you have to know your strengths and weaknesses and not be too proud to bring in the help to fill in the gaps.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Brandon Clarke.
Brandon Clarke is the co-founder and CEO of StartupAZ Foundation, an Arizona-based nonprofit that exists to empower the next generation of entrepreneurs, helping them grow, give back, and positively impact their communities. He is also the co-founder of CRADL,a startup studio driving exploration and innovation in technologies, media, and services that inspire and delight children, families and educators.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
A lot of the work with StartupAZ Foundation is rooted in experiences from my own entrepreneurial pursuits. I didn’t feel that I had access to much of a founder community locally. I had built two moderately successful companies before even recognizing that there was an entrepreneur community in Phoenix.
The early evolution of StartupAZ Foundation was inspired by great events like the #yesPHX socials and Phoenix Startup Week. We saw the community coming together in masses around entrepreneurship, with these events drawing hundreds of people from all over the valley — including downtown Phoenix warehouses in the middle of the summer when it’s over 110 degrees outside. The energy and enthusiasm around entreprepreneurship was palpable but there seemed to be a missing link so a small group of us wanted to lean into that. What we found was a lack of founder connectivity — early stage company builders coming together to learn from and lean on each other. We wanted to bridge the gap between the social aspects of entrepreneurship and the resources founders need to grow on pace with startups in our peer cities such as Denver and Salt Lake City. That bridge manifested in what is now known as the StartupAZ Collective. By providing the resources and connection points for founders, we aim to build a stronger, more vibrant, more generous ecosystem for entrepreneurs.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Here in Greater Phoenix, we have all the assets that robust startup ecosystems have, but we weren’t activating them in an effective way. My co-founder, Mario Martinez, and I let the data tell us where some of the gaps were and pulled a group of founders together for feedback. Hearing it from them directly solidified our hunch that company builders needed a platform for coming together in more meaningful ways to collectively solve some of the complex issues they were going through on their path to creating great companies. That was the “Aha Moment” and that was when we started to listen to other early stage company builders and recognize where they felt their limitations were.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside great business leaders in my life who gave me the courage to build stuff on my own. The inspiration for StartupAZ was rooted in my friendship with Mario Martinez, and the conversations we would have around regionally thinking bigger. The arguments against why Phoenix didn’t have successful startups surrounded the narratives of lacking capital, talent, and other characteristics. When in fact, we have those things, we just needed a thoughtful way to address why we didn’t have a more robust ecosystem. It was through those conversations with Mario that led to the launch of the StartupAZ Foundation and subsequently the StartupAZ Collective.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We were thoughtful about not trying to be duplicative of another program or initiative. Startups have the opportunity to establish a more resilient, predictable, and stable economy. By focusing on economic development and impact, we were able to differentiate from other organizations, but also align with them strategically in terms of core imperatives.
Early on, when we were forming StartupAZ, we would often refer to it as Switzerland. We needed to be collaborative and inclusive in pursuit of building partnerships to help drive the mission. While we’re incredibly spread out as a city, geography has had no monopoly on great ideas and great teams. We wanted to create a framework on how founders could execute at a high level within their own hubs, setting the tone for what is possible down the road.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
By utilizing the flywheel framework of generosity feeding performance, we are able to focus on empowering emerging entrepreneurs and founders to use their roles in their businesses, communities, and society at large to inspire a more generous world. We help provide resources to help them overcome business challenges they may face, but equally as important, our goal is to help them establish core values early on in their startups no matter their size. We want to inspire generosity. This generosity is multi-faceted, and can be through mentorship, financial aspects, creating connections, or even just being vulnerable by sharing your story. If we can inspire more of that, what will that mean for our community down the road?
One way we do this is through our Generosity Pledge, which involves founders and startups committing future performance back to their communities. Successful entrepreneurs have the potential to be the region’s next-generation philanthropists, and pave the way for future generations. That’s how we’re using our own successful performance with StartupAZ to help bring goodness to the world.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
The three character traits I’ve found most instrumental not just for me but also among multiple other successful founders are self-awareness, vulnerability, and the ability to navigate and dynamically assess problems. Self-awareness is key. You have to know your strengths and weaknesses and allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to admit those weaknesses and surround yourself with people smarter than you. If you need to always want to be the smartest person in the room, consider another profession, because it is a weakness in being an effective leader. The success of any business hinges on its ability to problem solve, and that requires first being able to understand what that problem is, challenge assumptions, and pivot as needs change.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
I was encouraged early to seek out mentors without context on where I could find those mentors. At that time, there weren’t a lot of resources to turn to connect with mentors that understood the unique needs of my business. I realized there was a big disconnect between seeking out mentors and finding ones that would actually be a good fit. So, in a roundabout way, it was good advice, because it helped lead to how we built the StartupAZ Collective and structured it the way we did.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Early on with StartupAZ Foundation, we had a hard time articulating what our role in the community was. We struggled with telling our own story, and because of that we missed opportunities surrounding strategic partnerships and recruiting cohorts into the StartupAZ Collective. Now, knowing our own story and the strategic landscape, we are able to recruit at a much higher volume. This is due to building our brand awareness, establishing our credibility, as well as there being a higher volume and quality of startup activity in our area.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
In the startup world, a lot of people refer to having a North Star. As cliche as it may sound, that’s what has driven us. Our North Star is embedded in the mission of the organization and the belief that a more generous community of entrepreneurs is a higher-performing community of entrepreneurs. That has helped us remain zeroed in on helping founders grow and give back — and keeps us going.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
Over the years, I’ve realized the importance of finding your tribe. Recognizing early on that founders need each other is crucial to successfully riding the emotional highs and lows, because nobody knows the journey of an entrepreneur better than someone who is currently in it. Your tribe becomes peers of other startups, co-founding CEOs, those you have made impactful connections with. This network of people allows you to be vulnerable and candid about your issues, and can help you break through them quicker. If you feel like the only way to successfully found a company is to do it in a silo and avoid feedback, critique, and accountability, you’ll be limited.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
Bootstrap to the point where you can’t anymore. Knowing enough about the product to validate that capital will help you grow faster. Far too often, founders look at the process of raising capital as a crutch — as a de-risking to leave their day job and pursue the startup. Depending on the product and the market, it’s much cheaper now than it has ever been before to get it to a product-market-fit stage. I’m a firm believer in bootstrapping until you can prove a clear pathway to product-market fit. Fundraising can become a big distraction.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
The main factor that distinguishes successful startups from unsuccessful ones is self-awareness. Asking yourself questions such as who is solving the problem, is it meaningful enough to justify a product-based solution, is this the right team. It is easy to get caught up in the hype of entrepreneurship. Having the ability to step back and say, “I don’t need to be a billionaire, but I recognize what it takes to build an idea and a team to turn it into a successful business,” will serve you well.
If I were to boil it to five things a successful startup needs, it would include:
- Self-awareness — as I mentioned, you have to know your strengths and weaknesses and not be too proud to bring in the help to fill in the gaps.
- A strong founding team — often startups are solo operations, but consider that even those you surround yourself with in those early days will be formative to your startup’s success.
- Product market fit — this is table stakes to any successful business.
- Excellent recruitment ability — startup founders must be talent magnets. The ability to scale will directly correlate with how quickly you can build a talented team.
- A big vision to solve a big, identifiable problem.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Some of the most common mistakes I see include getting distracted on market size and with shiny objects. Market focus — zero through your first million in revenue -– is critical. Founders try to be all things to all people because they think that is a good go-to-market strategy, but this can cause you to burn a lot of time and money. Even fundraising often becomes a big distraction. These factors prevent you from actually just running the company. You should always be aware of market dynamics and be ready to adapt or pivot, but you also have to remain focused.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
There is a misconception that your worth as a founder is embedded in the amount of time you spend on the business. “The grind” of spending every waking moment on the business is glamorized. Having balance is critical. If your mental health isn’t in check, your leadership capacity will struggle. It is important to maintain healthy routines, have accountability partners, and take time to meditate and identify things that allow you to focus on the objective rather than the daily fires.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I truly feel we are doing that with the StartupAZ Foundation. Our goal is to demonstrate how generosity and performance are not mutually exclusive and by way of demonstrating this, inspire a community of entrepreneurs to become our next-generation’s philanthropists. As they build successful startups into thriving businesses, they will become mentors to and investors in the future entrepreneurs — and this is the flywheel at work.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Obama in a heartbeat. He’s the kind of person I would want to play basketball with. His ability to inspire an entire generation, and broadly a population, and also to have an approachable “everyman” feel about him is moving. He embodied some amazing leadership qualities including a magnetic drive, knew how to inspire action, yet remained approachable, and I would want to have a conversation with him about that.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!