During the spring of 1999, John Lusk and Kyle Harrison turned their backs on the traditional path taken by most Wharton MBAs. Instead of accepting high-paying positions with an investment bank, consulting firm or Dumb Dot Com, John and Kyle decided to launch a startup based upon a simple, pedestrian product.
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From the outset of their adVenture, John and Kyle had no illusions that their startup would generate tremendous wealth. Rather, they founded their company with the explicit goal of learning what it means to be an entrepreneur. Often in life, “experience” is what you get when you do not get what you want. However, in John and Kyle’s case, experience is what they wanted and what they got from their adVenture. They certainly believed in their product, but unlike most entrepreneurs, their startup’s journey was more important to them than its ultimate destination.
Something else distinctive about their adVenture is the travelogue they created along the way. In contrast with most business books, John and Kyle did not attempt to recreate conversations, states of mind or actions years after the fact. Instead, they contemporaneously documented their experiences, which they shared with their friends and families via sporadic “diary” emails. As the email list continued to grow, they formalized their updates in a newsletter entitled The MouseDriver Insider, which eventually evolved into the outstanding book The MouseDriver Chronicles (MouseDriver).
Designed in a bar, on the back of a napkin, John and Kyle created a computer mouse which emulated the head of a golf driver. They based their entire company upon this one, humble product.
I have used MouseDriver in my entrepreneurial University courses for the past several years. Each quarter, the students give it rave reviews for its accessibility and applicability.
Unlike books which recount exceptionally rare successes, such as The Google Story or The Perfect Store: Inside eBay, MouseDriver tells a story that is relevant to the large majority of most startups. In contrast to high-profile Silicon Valley ventures, MouseDriver did not raise the financial resources to quickly hire a large team. Their chronic lack of cash required John and Kyle to become involved in every aspect of their business. Although this approach was exhausting, it afforded them ideal insight into all facets of their startup’s operations.
Sixteen of the real-world lessons chronicled by John and Kyle are summarized below. Although there are some spoilers in the following text, in most cases I try to describe the lesson learned in simple terms and leave it to the reader to learn for themselves how John and Kyle addressed each particular issue.
1. Find a Motivated, Value-Add Mentor
As described in Advice Worth The Price, John and Kyle were forced to deal with a superficially “interested” Advisor.
2. Good Is Good Enough – Do Not Over-Design
John and Kyle are required to address the dilemma encountered by all entrepreneurs who create tangible products – when to stop tweaking and start shipping.
3. Stick To Business Principles
John and Kyle are pitched an infomercial as a way to sell their product. They struggle with this proposition, because their gut tells them that infomercials are better suited to sell fake jewelry but the sales pitch is delivered by a forceful and seemingly legitimate industry insider.
4. Determine Distribution Early
Neither Founder had experience developing or managing distribution channels, nor were they initially motivated to learn about this important aspect of their company’s value chain.
5. “Brian Was Wrong”
The MouseDriver team learns that just because a salesperson excels at selling themselves during the interview process does not mean they can sell your product. They also must confront the veracity of an aggressive salesperson’s forecast.
6. Don’t Trade Money For Words
In one critical instance, John and Kyle agree to pay money in exchange for an unenforceable verbal promise. When subsequently faced with similar “promises,” they devise creative ways to avoid repeating their initial mistake.
7. Exclusivity Is Alluring
As noted in Excludesivity, entrepreneurs cannot afford to relinquish control of their destiny by entering into exclusive relationships. John and Kyle eventually pique the interest of several distributors, each of whom demands exclusivity. The manner in which the team navigates these rocky shoals is enlightening.
8. Once You Take Some Risks, Taking More Is Easy
As noted in The MBA Education And Other Oxymorons, starting an adVenture is akin to BASE jumping. Making the leap is daunting, but it often seems insignificant once you are forced to focus on surviving the freefall.
9. Ignore The Mood Meter
As described in Great Expectations, the highs are higher and the lows are lower at a startup. Entrepreneurs are well-served to modulate their mood swings, while still relishing each victory.
10. Having Office Space Doesn’t Suck
Knowing when to move from your bedroom and into a real office is another highly relevant message for first-time entrepreneurs.
11. Don’t “Think,” “Sell” – Sales Solve Most Problems
John and Kyle realize what every successful startup has experienced. Cash papers over mistakes, which is one reason why successful companies often appear to be “smarter” than they really are.
12. Stay Close To Customers
Out of necessity, the MouseDriver team is required to handle sales and customer service inquiries. This experience has a significant impact on the team’s subsequent decisions and the manner in which they “view” their business.
13. “Rule of Four”
John and Kyle learned the hard way that everything takes longer, costs more and yields less than initially expected.
14. Bartering Be Good
Although they start tentatively, the team eventually becomes comfortable negotiating everything, even to the point of cleverly trading excess inventory for a variety of goods and services.
15. The Beauty Of “Low Finance”
John and Kyle extract cash from the same “VC” that many entrepreneurs first call upon – their Visa Cards.
16. Four “P”s Of Entrepreneurship
John and Kyle learn first-hand that Passion, Persistence, Purpose and Patience are vital to every startup’s success.
Although MouseDriver provides a highly relevant look into the startup world that is applicable to most adVentures, it is deficient in one significant regard. Unlike most adVentures, neither John nor Kyle felt the “do or die” pressure which exists at most startups. In addition to the de facto two-year time limit they placed on their adVenture at the outset, they also significantly limited the funds invested in the company. In addition, other than “Brian the sales guy,” they did not hire any employees.
By essentially not accepting outside capital nor hiring employees, the MouseDriver Founders significantly limited the pressure associated with their adVenture. As noted in Pressure – The Mother Of An Entrepreneur’s Motivation, the need to meet payroll and provide investors with a return on their investment often motivates entrepreneurs to accomplish otherwise impossible feats.
In John and Kyle’s case, this mitigated pressure impacted the manner in which they addressed certain issues. This fact does not diminish the importance of their travelogue. However, a would-be voyager should be aware of the adVenture’s modulated pressure as they read John and Kyle’s exploits.
How does the book end? Do John and Kyle go bankrupt? Do they sell the company and retire? Are they still slogging it out nearly a decade later? Read The MouseDriver Chronicles to find out.
The book’s subtitle says it all: “The True-Life Adventures of Two First-Time Entrepreneurs.” This is one adVenture that is both entertaining and enlightening. Read it and you too can learn what it means to be a first-time entrepreneur, without having to go on a Cheetos and Mountain Dew diet.
Copyright © 2008 by J. Meredith Publishing. All rights reserved.