The 10 Commandments of Startup Success
There is no shortage of people ready to dispense their wisdom for the benefit of startups. Some of it will be valuable and some of it eccentric, to say the least. Our advice is always to take what you need and leave the rest. There is no single, straight path to success: every industry has its unique demands and every business must find its own way.
In the life sciences and biotech sector, all the usual startup challenges exist but there are a few extra thrown in. Frankly, there are many more than 10 commandments but the number has a certain historical resonance so we’ve limited our discussion accordingly.
1. Embrace Rejection
Innovation is at the core of the life sciences but sometimes investors and industry insiders will not see the sense behind a new drug research project, treatment concept or medical device design. If you face a unified wall of disapproval, you might take this as a signal to have a rethink but if you meet polarised opinions, you’re probably on the right track. Don’t forget that the earliest experiments with beta-blockers to prevent heart failure were taking place 22 years before they were approved.
2. Hire Quickly but Carefully
Getting the best talent on board early could be crucial to your success as you contemplate progressing from startup to scaleup and beyond. Your ability to hire will depend largely on the level of funding you’ve secured, be it bank loans or venture capital, but it should be a priority. Look for people who are not only skilled but who also show determination, curiosity and an ability to think laterally. Ideally, you want people for whom you yourself would be happy to work if the situation were reversed.
3. Take the Shortest Route
Try to release your new drug or device as early as possible even if this means it only gets a limited application to begin with. Don’t spend years carrying out every preclinical pharmacology trial in the book, just pick out the most significant ones and move as quickly as you can to proof of concept in patients. Narrow approval is a sound foundation on which to build, whatever your accountants say.
4. Make Decisions
Excessive caution can seriously impede your progress – don’t be afraid of making mistakes because a modest error rate is acceptable if it helps you to move fast.
5. See It Through
In drug discovery, you need to maintain your focus and your energy from start to finish. Don’t be side-tracked on the way by shiny new possibilities that simply distract from the core project. New discoveries are exciting but you need management, discipline, resilience, focus and highly skilled people to bring a new drug or healthcare product to market.
6. Be Ready to Change Plans
This might seem to contradict Commandment 5, but while consistency is important, so is the ability to admit when something isn’t working. If seeing them through is demonstrably unfeasible then be ready to kill bad ideas. It takes courage to perform what we might call the killer experiment but once the evidence of your own testing has revealed a fundamental problem, respect and act on what it tells you. Be careful not to damage morale by giving your team the idea that all the work has been wasted – persuade them it is simply being repurposed in a more fruitful direction.
7. Don’t Put Things on Hold
Resources, financial and otherwise, are permanently stretched in the life sciences. This is particularly true of early stage European biotech companies for whom the availability of funding is harder to find than their American competitors. When the money runs low, it is very tempting to delay or suspend work on a project, but once you do this, it becomes much harder to restart. For this reason, you should always secure more funding than you need, or, failing that, be prepared to enter partnerships with organisations who can provide the resources you need.
8. Give Your Employees Freedom
Although your startup is your baby and you have a clear vision of what you want to achieve, don’t tie the hands of the talented people you’ve hired. They might discover options that haven’t occurred to you. Let their initiative and independence serve you even if it looks a little like chaos. Take a lesson from Google, where employees were sanctioned and encouraged to spend 20% of their working days on projects of their own. It’s a sure way to flush out new ideas.
9. Create a Winning Company Culture
If you have great ideas for new drugs, methods of treatments, POC testing devices or other innovative healthcare equipment then the people you hire are likely to develop loyalty to those ideas and to your company mission. To ensure they remain loyal, committed and happy to remain in your employ, you need to prioritise your company culture. This goes beyond working conditions and work-life balance. It requires you to achieve total alignment between your personnel and the core values of your company. A life sciences startup is rarely about the profit motive alone, it’s about making a difference and even making history. If that’s what you can offer to your current and potential employees, then you’re on the right lines.
10. Have the Right Stuff
Tom Wolfe applied it to the astronauts of the US space programme but it is equally valid in the environment of imagination, innovation and sheer hard work that goes into making a successful life sciences startup. While we’re quoting iconic 20th century writers, how about Samuel Beckett’s ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better’. You need more than persistence, conviction and commitment. You need an all-or-nothing passion that will enable you to brush off the failures, the setbacks and keep your eyes fixed on the horizon of success.
Need help establishing your life sciences or biotech company? Get in touch with ScaleX Consulting for expert business and recruitment advice that’ll will serve your company for years to come.