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How to Start a Startup (Part 1)

I’ve attended a lot of engineering conferences in my time. One of the topics a lot of younger engineers like to chat about is the idea of starting their own company. Now, although I’m not an expert in this area, I have been involved in starting a couple of companies, and not knowing much about something has certainly never stopped me from talking about it. (Much like my dear old mom, the real trick is to get me to stop talking.)

What follows is a meandering muddle of musings pertaining to establishing one’s own enterprise. If we’re lucky, some of these cogitations and ruminations may even be applicable to your own situation. “Stranger things have happened at sea,” as my dear old granddad used to say, and he should know because he was in the Royal Navy, man and boy. As I wrote in Part 2 of my The Times They Are a-Changin’ miniseries of Cool Beans Blogs (see also Part 1 and Part 3), “If the Guinness Book of Records had been around at that time — my granddad would have been a contender for the ‘Man who was on the most ships sunk in WWII’ record.” But we digress…

Before Taking the Plunge

Let’s assume you are thinking about starting your own company. If so, and if you are planning on making any big purchases in the not-so-distant future — something like a house or a car that will involve a lot of checks on your credit and scrutinization of your financial situation — then make these purchases while you still have a real job.

My dad passed away in January 2000 after a long fight with cancer. At least we got to see the new millennium in together. When he passed, dad was 84 and I was 42, which seemed sort of symbolic. Sad to relate, I didn’t know what it was symbolic of, so — in the absence of a plan — I decided to leave my real job and form my own technical marketing consulting company with a couple of friends.

I was living in an apartment at that time. I’d sold my house the previous summer because I was bouncing back and forth between England to visit my mom and dad and America where I lived and worked. A few months after we’d formed our company, I decided to buy a small condo, but when I went to the local branch office of my bank, they said I couldn’t do this because I was unemployed. I responded that I wasn’t unemployed, but rather I was self-employed. They replied that until someone has been self-employed for two years, the bank regarded them as being unemployed.

This was obviously a bit of a showstopper. A few days later, however, my bank manager called me to say that I’d been a great customer for the past decade and he thought it was stupid that I couldn’t get a mortgage, so I should come back and fill in the paperwork. After I’d done so, he personally hand-carried it down to the head office and walked it through the system, using his secret squirrel override code whenever the automated computer systems “threw a wobbly” and said I was ineligible.

Company and Website Names

Picking a company name is a somewhat subjective activity. Some people opt for a name in some other language like Ancient Greek or Latin that has a clever meaning that’s related to their proposed company’s intended activities. For example, the Greek god Apollo — the god of light, masculine beauty, medicine, healing, music, and poetry — was the namesake of Apollo Computer Inc, which was acquired by Hewlett-Packard in 1989. Similarly, the company Tabular, which was famous for a unique 3D FPGA architecture, was named after the Latin phrase Tabula rasa, which is often translated as “clean slate.”

Other people go for a name that states unequivocally what they intend to focus on; for example, I had some friends who planned on starting a company called Big Ass Chairs until they discovered this name had already been taken. Now, if all you ever plan on doing is selling seating to those who boast more fulsome figures, a company name like Big Ass Chairs says what it means and means what it says. But what happens if you decide to branch out into something else in the future? You don’t want to end up being weighed down (as it were) by a name, so it pays to think things out a bit.

As an aside, another consideration is “Company Name” versus “Product Name.” I remember an electronic design automation (EDA) company called SpringSoft, which was acquired by Synopsys in 2012, that had an awesome product called Verdi. For a long time, Verdi was essentially SpringSoft’s only product, so they marketed the socks off it. They were very successful. So successful, in fact, that everyone in the industry was familiar with Verdi, but you’d be hard pushed to find anyone who knew the name SpringSoft. This came to bite them in the nether regions when they developed an even more awesome product called Debussy. They ended up having to market Debussy as “from the same company that brought you Verdi.” 

But we digress… As I said earlier, selecting a moniker for your company is somewhat subjective. You’ll have to go with your heart on this one, but there are a few things I would advise you to watch out for:

  1. If you intend on doing business with countries other than your own, take the time to make sure that your proposed company name doesn’t have unfortunate connotations to your prospective customers’ ears.
  2. Try to not be too clever — don’t end up with a company name that will cause you to spend the rest of your life spelling it out and/or explaining what it means.
  3. Don’t pick a company name that will tie you down. The name Alpha Thermostats may sound great now, but what happens if you want to branch out into something other than thermostats somewhere down the road?
  4. Make sure that the company name you desire, and the corresponding website URL, are both available. If you register your company as Alpha Widgets before taking the time to discover that someone else already owns the AlphaWidgets.com domain, then you are going to be kicking yourself for a long time to come, not the least that even people who know your company may well end up on your competitor’s website by mistake.

Logos and Letterheads et al

There’s an old saying that “You only have one chance to make a first impression.” It is perhaps more germane to say that you only have one chance to make a good first impression. It’s easy to make a bad first impression, which is the last thing you want to do.

I cannot tell you how many people I’ve met who have had a brilliant idea for a product or service and formed a company, only to end up looking like weeds and wets because they decided to scrimp on their company logo.

We all have a friend who has a friend who dabbles in graphics. Don’t use them unless you know for sure that they have a clue. A real graphics artist who has received real training will know all the “dos and don’ts” about this sort of thing. The last thing you want is a technicolor logo that looks wonderful when it’s presented full screen but is a blur when reduced to the upper corner of a website. Similarly, a real graphic artist will know how to make a logo that looks good in color, and that doesn’t transmogrify into an undistinguished blob when photocopied in black and white.

While you’re about it, it’s a good idea to get the same graphic artist to generate the templates for your business cards, company letterhead, PowerPoint presentations, and website. What you want is for everything to match in terms of “look-and-feel” and to reflect the “gestalt” of the company

When you give someone your business card and they later visit your website, you want them to make a connection, even if it’s an unconscious one. Similarly, if anyone from your company visits a customer to give a presentation — or if two or more of your employees are presenting papers at a conference — you want all the presentations to use the same template, and for that template to match your business cards, printed materials, website, etc.

I would say that this is the difference between looking like a startup and a professional organization, but I’ve seen presentations by multiple people from the same multibillion-dollar company that looked like they all worked for a different organization. The main thing is that if you get this right, you can make your startup look like a bigger, professional company, thereby taking one more step to making perception into reality.

In my next column we’ll look at things like accountants, legal representation, the advantages and disadvantages of having business partners, ethics, integrity, and corporate culture. In the meantime, I welcome any comments, questions, and suggestions.

3 thoughts on “How to Start a Startup (Part 1)”

    1. The time to carefully check for someone else with the same or similar name is *before* you invest a bunch of money in advertising, only to get nasty letters from lawyers. And the money you spend on a lawyer is well worth it. –I learned the hard way. —

  1. Hi Clive, good advice, as always. Not sure I can decipher “looking like weeds and wets”, but I suspect it’s a negative term by you Brits.

    I’ve been fortunate to have worked as an independent consultant for over ten years now and at the beginning, I struggled a bit with the corporate name. I eventually settled for the somewhat boring “Wyatt Technical Services”, which has the advantage I could pursue almost anything that fits within a “technical” nature. And in fact that has been a plus through the years. As for my logo, it’s a curled up Native American lizard symbol. Why? I dunno, I just liked it. The real brand, though, is my head shot, which appears on almost all social media correspondence and on my business card. Most of my clients are remote and over half I’ve never even met face-to-face. I want my them to connect with me through a consistent and familiar branding – my mug shot.

    Thanks again for telling your story and for the excellent advice.

    Ken

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