The founding team for a startup typically provides the basic intellectual capital, and frequently the initial seed capital. But a young team often has to rely on advisors for social capital–existing relationships based on mutual trust and prior shared success. These relationships act as points of departure for market exploration and social navigation to early customers.
One early example in high technology is Fred Terman‘s role in the formation and early success of Hewlett Packard. In “The Engineer Who Jump-Started Silicon Valley” a 1997 Business Week article by Joan O’C. Hamilton it’s clear that he provided the founders with considerable social capital:
Packard’s recollections complete the picture: “We built the first production model by Christmas, and I clearly recall having [the first oscillator production unit] sitting on the mantel above the fireplace,” he wrote in “The HP Way.” “There we took pictures of it and produced a two-page sales brochure that we sent to a list of about 25 potential customers provided by Fred Terman. We designated this first product the Model 200A because we thought the name would make us look like we’d been around for awhile.”
Social navigation, or the ability to navigate in a population and gain cues and guidance from individuals both directly and by their actions, is a key skill that founders must develop. As much as they want to focus on technology, finding prospects to validate that they are solving a real problem and that their solution is compelling is twice as important. Navigation requires that you know where you are, where you want to go, and how you want to get there. It may also involve experimentation and exploration of the market, and in many cases for a startup’s founders, one or more revisions to your destination.
Postscript: just so it’s a little clearer that a few of the names that Terman supplied became customers, here is another paragraph from same “Litton Answers the Call” section of the “Garage Becomes Workshop” chapter of the “The HP Way” the first excerpt above came from.
“We weren’t expecting much from our first mailing, but amazingly enough, in the first couple of weeks in January back came several orders…and some were accompanied by checks.”