Guy Kawasaki tells Canadian startups to stop trying to be Apple

Guy Kawasaki in Vancouver

Why shouldn’t you befriend your investors? What differentiates the early adopters and the late majority? What are the two key roles you need in any startup?

Last week, more than 160 technology entrepreneurs and executives filled a theatre at the Vancouver Aquarium to hear Guy Kawasaki — the legendary tech marketer, author, and former chief evangelist at Apple — share thoughts on these startup issues and more.

The talk, hosted by Wilfrid Laurier University’s Lazaridis Institute, focused on insights to help entrepreneurs lead a successful company in a complex, changing world.

Through an efficient 30-minute talk and an engaging Q&A session to match, Kawasaki, with his signature charisma and wit, shared what he believes to be the top mistakes of entrepreneurs—and what they can do to overcome them.

Don’t scale too fast; eat what you kill

One of the most common entrepreneurial mistakes Kawasaki encounters is when founders try to scale too fast. He shared instances where entrepreneurs reason that they need “three or four datacentres, six distribution sites, and a team of 50 people.” Despite the fact that they’ve never shipped a piece of software, they are under the delusion that “theirs will be on time and great,” though they may not even have customers yet.

“I want you to wrap your head around the fact that you live in a Tinder world.”

What happens when issues arise and they don’t actually ship? What happens when the customers don’t come? What happens when your VC firm wants answers and you have none? You get fired as a CEO, you’re forced to merge with another portfolio company, or face any other countless outcomes that you don’t want, says Kawasaki.

How do you prevent this? “You eat what you kill. This means that you don’t build the infrastructure, you don’t build the support team, you don’t build the second building, you don’t build the next datacentre,” he says.

“Only once you’ve got the sale, you worry about how to fulfill it.”

If you are saying ‘partnership,’ it’s because you cannot say ‘sale’

So you have a partnership with IBM? Or you’re partnering with Google and Microsoft? Well, Kawasaki doesn’t buy it, because he’s heard this before. “You’re blowing all this bullshit because you cannot say we achieved sales. You’re saying partnership because you don’t have real revenue,” he said. “Don’t focus on partnerships. Focus on sales.”

He went so far as to say that if there’s anything entrepreneurs should take away from his presentation, it’s that sales fix everything. “Trust me, morale will be better, it will be easier to recruit, and your investors will leave you alone.”

Which comes first? The passion or the sales?

On the topic of sales, Kawasaki provided some additional nuanced insight. He’s often heard people say that in order to succeed, you need to have passion. If you have passionate people working for you who love the product, you’ll be successful.

But Kawasaki has his own view distilled from decades of being one of the world’s most distinguished tech marketers. “I would make the case that you could be neutral, not even interested in selling dog food, but if all of a sudden you’re selling 50,000 cases a day of dog food — trust me,” he said to chuckles in the audience. “You will develop a passion for dog food.”

Stop trying to be Google and Apple; focus on niches

Many entrepreneurs look at companies that are more than two or three decades old and believe that’s what they should be striving for. They try to do too much. “Entrepreneurs say ‘we’re going to do applications, an OS, ecommerce, everything — total market domination,’” Kawasaki said. “But these dominant companies like Google, Apple, and Microsoft did it one market at a time. There never was a grand plan,” he added.

He doesn’t believe Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates sat down and necessarily said, “Let’s map the future of Microsoft.” Rather, the global tech giants we know today chose to worry about one thing at a time.

Imitating a young Gates, Kawasaki quipped, “‘My God, let’s just get the MS-DOS contract from IBM,’ let’s just worry about one thing at a time.”

Do not hire in your own image

Focusing on a topic that’s especially timely given current events in the United States, Kawasaki made the case that in startups, you need people from diverse backgrounds. “There are many geographic markets [and] so many different aspects of a company, you need diversity,” he said. You need to hire to complement yourself.

But ultimately, in startups, he said there are really only two key functions: “You need someone who can make it; and you need someone who can sell it. That’s it.” Why did Apple work out so well? “Woz could make it, Jobs could sell it,” he said.

Entrepreneurs are building companies in a Tinder world

An audience member asked, “Do you think entrepreneurs undervalue their product or services?” Kawasaki said, “I have not met one who does yet.”

He continued that, in fact, most entrepreneurs are way too close to their product. They are often struck by the fact that everyone doesn’t appreciate their products features in the same way that they do. They ask, “Why doesn’t everyone realize how revolutionary this is? How come more people are not interested in this?”

So how should entrepreneurs be thinking about their work in the context of the current world? Kawasaki suggested that the models for online dating provide a clue. On one extreme of the spectrum, there’s the eHarmony model where you fill out several fields of psychographic information. Its purpose is to help you find your soulmate; the person you are going to spend the rest of your life with. The system is nuanced, thoughtful, and intentional.

On the other extreme, there’s Tinder, he said. And on Tinder, it’s “Interesting, not interesting, interesting, not interesting,” he said, mimicking the app’s iconic thumb swiping function. This is how people make up their minds. That’s how decisions are made in today’s world, even if it’s not quite as fast. But Kawasaki was resolute: “I want you to wrap your head around the fact that you live in a Tinder world.”

William Johnson

William Johnson

William Johnson is a Vancouver-based strategist, writer, and co-founder of www.pacificjournal.ca. He can be found at @notionport on Twitter.