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Navigating the Startup Jungle
Make your own path to survive
One of the best metaphors for the stages of building a startup comes from Jeff Bussgang of Flybridge Capital. He breaks the stages down into the (1) jungle, (2) dirt road, and (3) highway. While at the end of the journey, you are on the highway and you can start moving as fast as you can, the middle of the journey is bumpy and windy. But it is the very beginning stage, the jungle, when you have no determinable path, just an idea and a product looking for market fit.
While many of us can relate to navigating jungle trails and spending time in the thick brush, speaking with several entrepreneurs about this metaphor some will jokingly add their own modifications. One recently said, “sure it’s a jungle, but it’s also the middle of the night and you can hear the growling of hungry animals.” That modification certainly adds layers of the fear and uncertainty that entrepreneurs face in those initial stages.
“Welcome to the jungle, we take it day by day
If you want it, you're gonna bleed but it's the price to pay”
Welcome to the Jungle, Guns N’ Roses
Surviving the jungle certainly takes perseverance and the unique characteristic of an entrepreneur that is sheer hustle and resilience. But surviving is not necessarily thriving, and the key is to get out of the jungle as quickly and efficiently as possible.
“Welcome to the jungle, it gets worse here every day
You learn to live like an animal in the jungle where we play
If you got hunger for what you see, you'll take it eventually”
Welcome to the Jungle, Guns N’ Roses
Navigating out of the Jungle
So, let’s extend this analogy a bit further and discuss how you navigate yourself out of the jungle. First, let’s set the scene that you are surrounded by thick brush with no idea which direction to go or how far you need to go to get out.
Before setting off, you need to make the directional decision where to go. This is essentially the educated decision an entrepreneur is making when identifying a problem statement and developing a solution. Establishing sound logic is important here because these are your first steps. What is your hypothesis? “I am going in this direction because…and I know I am on the right path if….”
Improving your Odds: Experience matters in understanding problems. This doesn’t necessarily mean age, but rather experience with the problem. This can come from the Founders or the Team, but supplementing this with a support network, advisers or even a credible angel investor can provide much needed insights in pointing you in the right direction. It’s important to start assembling a network around you that you can lean on for support and insight.
Finding an advisor is not always so straight-forward and may not be 100% necessary. The point is to round out your understanding of the problem statement and the use case for your solution. If you have the background already, maybe you can push forward. If not, an advisor could be a colleague or your old Uni professor that consults on that same topic.
Now you need to start making a pathway in the direction that you have chosen. If you were indeed in the jungle, there is no more useful tool than a nice machete and with that it is unavoidable to include “hack” into the extension of our analogy here. You have limited resources and you’re trying to find the short-cut out of here, little by little hacking your way through the jungle.
So, you’ve now chosen a direction and you’ve started making your path. The problem is, how do you know that you are right? Do you just keep going along hoping that you will finally get out of the jungle? While there are plenty of start-ups that do that, this is not what you should be doing.
When you are moving in a direction and making a path, testing your path is the same as testing your product-market fit. Rarely is anyone able to get it 100% correct straight from the beginning. The more likely is that you will have to shift directions, to “pivot”. Sometimes, this can lead you in a completely different direction entirely.
Improving your Odds: Some scrappiness is critical here as most start-ups are operating with limited capacity and resources. You may even be looking at raising funding or have already received Seed funding. It is important to look for more than just capital and seek out an investor that can add value in this journey and accelerate your path.
A bad investor at this early stage can be like encountering a heavy rain in the jungle. You can slug along but it may obscure the easier path, just like a bad investor can push you in the wrong direction or emphasize short-termism. A good investor can be like finding GPS signal or, better yet, an evac helicopter. As much as an investor will diligence you, you should diligence your investor.
You Are Not Out of the Woods Yet
If you manage through and find product-market fit, you’ll find yourself leading toward the dirt road. You won’t be quite out of the woods, but at least you’re not hacking you way through the brush. This is a topic for an entirely different conversation.