90% of Startups Fail - How I Improve My Odds

90% of Startups Fail - How I Improve My Odds

One of my favorite quotes about starting a company is that building a startup is like jumping off a cliff and building a plane on the way down. Elon Musk shared a similar insight when he said building a company is like eating glass and staring into the abyss. In both cases, the message is clear. You’re doomed.

I want to share three stories that have helped my odds in building PenTips and Nuwa. PenTips has shipped over 100,000 products that provide sensation and comfort to digital artists. At Nuwa, we are reinventing the pen - building the smartest pen the world has ever seen. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.

Build for People

In early 2020, I dropped my Apple Pencil on the ground, shattering the tip. I thought I’d make a protective cover for it; I went to find manufacturers and built what is now known as PenTips Lite. I brought it to some friends I knew who worked on iPads, and they shared how they loved the friction it provided. They were artists. I set up a ten-euro campaign on Facebook with the message “A tip for more friction.” Besides the chuckles people gave in the comments, it also gave traffic to the website. I engaged with everyone - those who liked it, the person who commented, and whoever emailed me. I wanted to get to know the people behind the purchases.

This process was (is) time-consuming, but I enjoyed communicating directly with customers - whether it was about the status of their package or their feedback. The latter helped PenTips soar from a bedroom project to a company with 10+ people, generating millions in revenue.

In the era of chatbots, keeping in direct contact with the customers continues to make a difference. The product we developed for PenTips was excellent, and listening to the customer made it easier to develop better ones. It’s a topic I often talk about at PenTips and Nuwa - No AI for creating text. And if we do, it should be clear it was AI. People sell to people. People build for people.

Build with People

We went from a team of 1 to 40 in a little over two years. Gradually growing the teams at PenTips and Nuwa was a challenge. But I love that challenge. Being an unusual combination of French, Dutch and Texan, I'm used to being “the foreign kid.” Building a company, I get to work with people from all around the world. We have 30+ nationalities out of the 40 people working for both companies. Work sessions with people with different backgrounds, communication styles, and various ways of working are - in my experience - the coolest experience at work.

So, getting to 40 people is a feat of its own when you’re a startup in a market where it’s hard to find people. It’s not as simple as searching the university halls for people (though it helps to be here besides a campus). And bad hires can sink a ship. That’s why I take each first screening call myself. I don’t get it right all the time, but, I think overall we’ve got a vibrant and super energetic team. These “vibe checks” sound ridiculous if you don’t understand how vital the 'vibe' is to a team. Sports teams do this, too.

Time to start scaling.

I didn’t realize I was doing it until my mentor shared insights on scaling that made me think, Woah, this almost seems natural.

He gave me Verne Harnish's book, Scaling Up. That piece of literature changed the game for me, providing a better perspective on how scaling can be accomplished with procedures that achieve that golden word, alignment. Make sure people know their responsibilities, how you’ll evaluate them, what the big picture is, how it’s broken down into quarters, and how their work impacts the profit margin. It quickly starts to sound like an MBA. But what’s great is that you can scale while still sticking to what you love - building with people full of passion, talent, and loads of energy. That should not and will not change.

Don’t Give Up

I was 11 in 2006 and was busy burning custom CDs for $1 per song. A year later, I burned those MP3s to iPods for $10 a sync. After moving to the Netherlands, I started a B2B-service company to implement Apple products into businesses. Then, a friend and I jumped on the fidget spinner hype and started an e-commerce store. I tried starting four different SAAS companies back-to-back-to-back-to-back from 2017 to 2020 before starting a fashion company with friends until I dropped my Apple Pencil on the ground. If I couldn’t get an idea to generate cash fast enough, I went to the next. I had very little patience for slow growth. Overall, I felt pretty strongly that I could make something work. If others could do it, why couldn’t I? Doubt crept in, but optimism will always outshine the darkness.

For PenTips, I had a difficult time scaling in March 2021. Green numbers gave me a sense we were unstoppable, so I put everything I had into growing. Then we plunged into a deficit because the results weren’t the same, and I also didn’t have the cash to buy the inventory I needed. I couldn’t pay myself for six months. I’m sure doubt crept in then.

At Nuwa, we were raising a second round of funding in late 2023, and I reached out to over 100 investors. Less than a handful wanted to talk. That took over 12 months: each no and ghosting hurt a bit. I’m sure doubt crept in then, too. But it isn’t in me to give up. And seeing where we are now, none of us want to give up - it doesn’t matter how far we've already come, we want to keep progressing. That's another thing I've learned from my mentor - don't judge your success by what others think of you, but by those who stand by your side when it’s not going great. Those are the moments that give you the feeling to keep pushing forward. You’ll make it!

These were three short stories about how I improved my chances. When does a startup fail? When there’s no more ambition to progress. When does a startup succeed? When it can fuel its ambitions with its own money. I don’t think I’m ready to call our startups a success yet, but I guess - will I ever be ready to?

I hope you found this little story worth your time. If you want to learn more about Nuwa’s journey, check out our website. If you want to connect with me, do it here or send me an email - marc@nuwapen.com.

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