Key Takeaways From Two Survival to Thrival Books

The two “Survival to Thrival” books “Building the Enterprise Startup” and “Change or Be Changed” offers insights for bootstrappers navigating the path from founding to scaling.

Key Takeaways From Two Survival to Thrival Books

Survival To Thrival
The Survival to Thrival books are written with the assumption that your goal is to grow your startup into a billion-dollar corporation. They assume that you will take several rounds of venture capital and need to change out key leaders at least once, if not two or three times. This review will highlight the advice that I believe applies to bootstrappers aiming to grow into a multi-million dollar business. You don’t have to stop there, but it’s a hard enough journey to plan on its own.

Book One: The Company Journey

Survival to Thrival: Building the Enterprise Startup – Book 1 The Company Journey” by Bob Tinker and Tae Hea Nahm came out in 2018, it’s based primarily on the author’s shared experienced establishing and scaling MobileIron. I took away five key points:

Founding path is non-linear and uncomfortable. First-time founders (especially those with strong execution backgrounds) crave a linear path or process through the founding stages. It usually doesn’t work that way. The path tends to be a non-linear path of planning and opportunism.

Focus but be open to adjacent opportunities.  Spend 20-30% of your energy targeting the potential for  product fit in adjacent markets. Ask prospects “what other problems are you struggling with?” Meet with prospects in other segments who may be wrestling with the same problem as your target customer. Be willing to test adjacent niches with mock-ups and prototypes.

B2B Product Market Fit requires customers who use the product, pay for it, and recommend it to peers.

Product Market Fit is not enough, you need Go to Market Fit (GTM Fit). You have GTM fit when you feel customers pulling you in and you have a one page playbook that creates repeatable wins.

Build the playbook by collecting anecdotes, analyzing them as data, and visualizing them. Every win, loss, stuck deal, and uninterested prospect is an opportunity to refine your understanding who, why, and why not.

Book Two: Change or Be Changed

The second book in the series, Survival to Thrival: Change or Be Changed, focuses much more on how the requirements for success in critical roles change as a firm transitions from survival to growth to operating as a major enterprise. I will highlight their advice on the changing role of the head of engineering, the head of operations or finance, and cultivating company culture.

Changing Role for Head of Engineering

Early: Frontier Craftsman

  • Mission:  Build product 1.0 with rapid hands-on iteration and limited resources to find Product-Market Fit and Go-To-Market Fit.
  • Skills:
    • Customer obsession
    • Hands on coder or system architect
    • Rapid innovation and mastery of new technoologies
    • Lead a small team, hired primarily through a trusted network
  • Challenges:
    • Deal with uncertainty and frequent changes.
    • Hire key talent into an uncertain startup.
    • Know what can be done quickly (and potentially redone later) and what must be done carefully to ensure the foundation for the right long term architecture.

From table on page 68 of Survival to Thrival: Change or Be Changed

This is a good summary of the challenges and trade-offs the head of engineering needs to manage, in particular, to deploy “good enough” solutions rapidly without introducing flaws in the product architect that will prove fatal if you succeed. The need to survive and win business means you can rarely do it right the first time. In new markets, your understanding of customer needs and their evolving understanding of what’s possible if they adjust or refine internal processes to take advantage of your offering means that you are rarely working from a detailed specification that will survive contact with the shared learning that will ensue from heavy customer use of your product.

Growth:  General Contractor

  • Mission: Build category-leading product while out-executing the competition.
  • Skills:
    • Steps back from hands-on coding to drive overall engineering execution.
    • Balance between exciting category leading capabilities and buttressing product for current customers.
    • Build and lead multiple engineering teams. Hire strong bench of first-line leaders. Recruit beyond network.
  • Challenges:
    • Build linkages across customer support, sales, and marketing.
    • Expand core product functionality while paying down technical debt.

From table on page 68 of Survival to Thrival: Change or Be Changed

I have seen a number of technical founders find it difficult to “step away from hands-on coding” and I felt this might belong as much in the challenges section. There is an alternate approach I have seen work where a technical cofounder does not try to become a general who is managing multiple teams but retains a small team and continues to do hands-on work to act as a technology scout and rapid prototyping group.

I think “build linkages across customer support, sales, and marketing” is the wrong challenge. In a small team where many members are wearing multiple hats, cross-functional collaboration comes naturally. Where I have seen problems intrude is when outside managers are hired who start to build walls between functions that inhibit communication and collaboration. I would phrase this challenge as “continue to work cross-functionally and don’t permit silos to be erected that impede collaboration.

Scale:  Campus Developer

  • Mission: Build out platform and multiple products, delivering on vision and business results.
  • Skills: Lead multiple simultaneous engineering programs, all linked to overall strategy.
  • Challenges: Balance needs of individual product teams with needs of overall company.

From table on page 68 of Survival to Thrival: Change or Be Changed

The transition to managing multiple products is a significant challenge and technical founders may find it easier and more fulfilling to look for someone with a track record in this area instead of trying to learn on the job.

Changing Operations / CFO Role

Early:  Supply Quartermaster

  • Mission: Tactical planning and cash conservation.
  • Skills:
    • Build operating plan for survival phase.
    • Control expenses. Develop intimate knowledge of cash-burn and zero-cash date.
    • Build the early Go-To-Market financial model and key metrics.
  • Soft Skills
    • Help with sales deals and customer contracts.
    • Help with fundraising and due diligence.

Growth: Airplane Navigator

  • Mission: Set course and speed. Drive the business plan.  Instrument business for growth.

Scale: Co-Pilot

  • Mission: Partner with CEO to run the business and  build business value.

From table on page 72 of Survival to Thrival: Change or Be Changed

This progression embeds a strong assumption about seeking outside financing (I have omitted several skills and challenges related to that. One of the founders or a key early employee must act as a quartermaster and focus on operational issues. In a situation where one founder is focused on sales and the other on engineering, each can stake responsibility for operations in their respective sphere, provided that they can craft an overall operating plan.

To maintain growth, you must shift from heroics to routine performance that is at least satisfactory. That will require a focus on systems and defined processes. The founders have to shift from encouraging extraordinary effort on a regular basis to anticipating how to stay out of trouble. That does not mean special efforts won’t be required from time to time, but they should not be the default plan or assumption for how progress will be accomplished.

Cultural Moments

“Culture is defined by who (and what behaviors) get promoted and fired. The real company values, as opposed to the nice-sounding values, are shown by who gets rewarded, promoted, or let go.”
Netflix Culture: Freedom and Responsibility (from page 58 of “Survival to Thrival: Change or Be Changed“)

The key decisions that separate founders and leaders who “talk the talk” from those who “walk the walk.” are called cultural moments. The essential insight is that culture is formed less by what’s written but by the actions that leaders take and how they make the difficult decisions.

Cultural moments are key decisions that create, reinforce, change, or undermine culture.

  • Decisions to hire, promote, or fire someone.
  • Dealing with mistakes, failures, and bad news.
  • Recognition associated with good news.
  • Trade-offs between short-term gain and long-term gain for an individual or the company.
  • How leaders deal with each other, with employees, with customers, and with investors.
  • Dealing with conflicts and issues where there is no black and white answer.

Survival to Thrival: Change or Be Changed“) (pages 163-4)

This is a good model for how culture evolves and what leaders can do to cultivate it. Employees watch your behavior and judge you by your decisions much more than your pronouncements.

“”Culture is defined by compensation, promotions, and terminations. Basically, people seeing who succeeds and fails in the company defines culture. The people who succeed become role models for what’s valued in the organization.”
Tae Hea Nahm in “Tae Hea Nahn of Storm Ventures, a believer and skeptic in one

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