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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

The key to startup success

How do you take a big idea from a napkin to a smashing success?

The key to startup success
[NDABCREATIVITY / Adobe Stock]

As a creative, marketer, and entrepreneur, I’ve worked on large Hollywood productions with the likes of Bob Zemeckis, Tom Hanks, Nicolas Cage, and Steven Spielberg. I built a company from three to 100 employees marketing video games for Activision, EA, and Sony Playstation, and have launched new consumer technology products for will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas. But the latest chapter is perhaps my most interesting and challenging: I am an investor, board member, and advisor to more than a dozen marketing and technology startups.

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I am the “veteran entrepreneur in the room” with young entrepreneurs as they figure out how to grow “from garage to gargantuan.” I’m also back in the role of “employee” for one of my portfolio companies, retail technology startup Halla, where the founders are barely half my age, and the CEO was once my intern. (Wrap your head around that!) In all of these endeavors, I am responsible for helping young companies grow quickly, with as few wrong turns as possible, while burning through the least amount of cash possible. And so I’ve given considerable thought lately to how the great people I worked for over my career achieved so much success, in an attempt to distill this knowledge for my companions on this latest entrepreneurial journey (and now, for you as well).

So, how do you take a big idea from a napkin to a smashing success? It all boils down to the decidedly awkward but nonetheless accurate acronym, VAPE: vision, assessment, planning, execution. Here’s how this goes:

VISION

This is the aspect of bringing ideas into reality where most young entrepreneurs shine. We know both from scientific research and personal experience that younger people are generally more creative and cognitively flexible than their elders. But even older entrepreneurs tend to be quite visionary by nature—will.i.am, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and Richard Branson are famous examples of that. Having been around my fair share of visionaries, I can report that while having a vision for “what might be” is truly the germ of it all, it only takes you so far. You can’t easily operationalize a vision directly, and if you somehow manage to do so, you should at least expect something very expensive.

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ASSESSMENT

Once an idea has burrowed its way into your brain, the next step is critical. Entrepreneurs need a deliberate process of evaluation, including a fair amount of “competitive landscaping” to make sure their idea really passes muster. Filmmakers constantly ask, “How do we impact our audience with the limited resources available to us?” and “Does this critically aid the narrative?” In the making of Forrest Gump (my first job out of college), many depictions of historical scenes got cut because of this. Well, the same goes for marketing a product or service. You need to really clarify your idea, audience, competitive advantages, obstacles, and the financing needed to get to market. This is what “product-market fit” and “path to commercialization” are all about.

PLANNING

For every day of actual filming on a Hollywood-scale production, there are three days of pre-production and post-production. The planning process includes staffing, logistics, set builds, choreography, rehearsals, and much more. To operationalize the vision for Forrest Gump that he had in his head, Bob Zemeckis reviewed the script page by page with 20 department heads, breaking down every aspect of the entire film. Mounting a jet engine on a platform in a South Carolina harbor to portray Lieutenant Dan on a mast in a hurricane, for instance—that didn’t just happen. It took weeks of detailed planning. Likewise, launching a new venture requires consideration of funding, hiring, marketing, growth, customer service, and so on. The better you can prepare your team for the hurricane to come, the greater your chances are for success. Like the analogy given to me early in my career, “if a rocket is an inch off at launch, it can end up thousands of miles from its intended destination.” Entrepreneurialism is no different in this respect. Plan well to execute better.

EXECUTION

“A” and “P” are the hard slog from vision to execution. But if you’ve done everything you can up to this point, execution is where all the magic happens. I think what drives most entrepreneurs far more than the financial rewards inherent to business success is the incomparable satisfaction of bringing a dream from concept to reality. Intentionality in planning is what fosters the character and heart of teams that perform well in execution. It is like an NFL team running a play again and again, Monday through Friday, in order to ensure that things go off without a hitch on Sunday. It’s not to say that executing is perfunctory but, in my experience, agility in the face of challenges is forged in assessment and planning, which ultimately account for many unpredictable variables.

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It may not be the most elegant of acronyms, but VAPE is what I suggest to the founders of all the startups I invest in today. Whether you are a two-person startup or have already gone through a few rounds of funding, you only have one or two shots at launching your product or service. Even when you recover from mistakes, you are playing catch-up with the competition, and probably with less cash than you need. It may seem romantic to “jump unto the breach” from “V” to “E” without going through the tedious process of “A” and “P,” but there’s really nothing romantic about failure. My advice is this: to avoid your dreams going up in smoke, just VAPE.


Toby Blue is Chief Marketing Officer at Halla.io, Co-Founder and Partner at 19Y Ventures, Partner at 19York, board member, investor, and mentor.

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