Growing up is hard. More responsibility, more decisions, and in turn more mistakes. From idea to startup to scaleup to unicorn, the journey can be kind of rocky. Yet, how do successful startups manage the rocky journey from startup to scaleup and – maybe one day – to unicorn?
At VivaTech 2022, we sat down with the expert of scaling up. John Chambers, former CEO of Cisco, serial investor, and Global Ambassador of French Tech.
Chambers has been a part of every size company and scaled multiple businesses and startups. From a headcount of 400 people to 75,000 and from sales revenue of 70 million to 48 billion. He shared his insights on success (and meaningful failure).
What are the common mistakes that entrepreneurs make, and how can they be avoided?
Not focusing on differentiation. Having competitors is fine, but startups can use technology to differentiate their business. “Use a new technology like AI to change your business model, like the internet changed business models 30 years ago,” Chambers suggested.
Yet as we enter a period of uncertainty, it’s important to keep growth in check and focus more on what can be controlled. “You need to focus on a plan for an economic slowdown – which I believe is going to happen – you need a plan A, B, and C to navigate through it going forward.”
But the biggest mistakes Chambers has seen? Not hiring the right people for your business. “Engineers, you will hire a Chief Revenue Officer who talks like an engineer, who’s really a business development person in disguise. And for those with a business background, you will make the same mistakes on engineers. You’ll focus on engineers who can really articulate their vision well, when in fact in engineering lead you want someone who can build great products.”
With the market changing, how should startups adapt their business models?
Chambers was leading Cisco in 2000 when the market crashed because of the dot-com bubble. He considers the period right after as his most challenging moment as a leader. From its stock rising every week by 50% to an immediate 80% decrease, Cisco had to find a way to stabilize again.
“You see that with great companies today like DocuSign, their stock is going from 300 to 60. Cloud Flair their stock is going from 200 to 40. There is a natural adjustment happening here, I don’t think that’s bad. The market has been 2-3 times what we’ve traditionally seen, so I think it’s a natural resetting.
“Great companies are always formed during the economic downturn. You are more a product as a leader of how you handle your setbacks. So until you have a near-death experience, you’re not going to have a great company. So I would prepare for the tough times, hope for the good times, and then be very agile as we go into this next year.”
How can founders build more sustainable growth?
The four biggest focuses for sustainable growth for Chambers are: a clear vision, the best team, an incredible company culture, and risk-taking.
“It starts with really understanding your vision and strategy. It would shock you how many times I sit down with a startup and ask them for their vision and strategy and I can’t differentiate that from what I’ve heard from 5 other startups. Understand what is really unique about your vision, and what is your sustainable differentiation.
“Then it’s candidly about the team that you build. How do you get your engineering team to be world-class? How do you get your sales team to be world-class?
“Most startups underestimate how important culture is. Warren Buffet said it best: “Culture eats vision and strategy for lunch.” I believe that great companies have really strong cultures. Whether it’s at Tesla or Cisco or Microsoft, cultures are all different.
“And then you have to take the courage to disrupt yourself and continue to take risks. If you’re not disrupting yourself, your competitors and the markets are. Doing the right thing for too long is a common mistake.”