I spent six years at Bandwidth, one of the largest and most successful tech startups in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. It was an amazing run, including the three years in a row when we landed in the top 30 of the Inc 500 Fastest Growing Companies in the US. I was the CTO for the last three years of my tenure there.
I learned a lot about myself and what it takes to build a successful startup during those years, and wanted to share five of the most important lessons from the early days of the company.
It may seem obvious to most of you that urgency is important in an early-stage company. However, I’ve seen lots of evidence to the contrary. There is a pace at which normal companies move (and I’m not talking about IBM or any other of the larger enterprises, I’m talking about a normal 20-30 person company) and an authentic startup.
When I started at Bandwidth, I thought I was ready. I’d been a part of two very small, fast-moving companies right before joining. I promptly got run over for about two to three months. There was an urgency that I could feel every day. My work mattered, and it mattered now. If I didn’t do my job, the company suffered directly and immediately. We worked very hard, and occasionally played hard. But there was no messing around.
2. No Rear View Mirror
We made a lot of mistakes as a company. I made a lot of mistakes individually, both acts of bad judgment or just plain screwing up. Not once, ever, was any mistake that I made brought back up in some future conversation with the leaders. It was as if they didn’t remember. The only thing that mattered was now and the future. The past was done. Forget it. Move on.
Furthermore, in the middle of colossal failures (systems being down, customers screaming, hell breaking loose), the question was always “What do we need to do to get it working?” and not “What did you do to screw this up?”
It’s hard to overestimate the effect that this had on me personally and professionally. I knew I was free to take risks, to try things that were bold and new because failure was tolerated and even encouraged. And I knew that, though I would have to answer why something was broken and ensure that it would not happen again, it was never a referendum on me personally.
3. The Team Is Everything
My first year there we took the annual company ski trip to Park City, Utah, during Sundance week. It was my third or fourth month on board. I had never done anything like that at any company. The entire company was invited, and almost everyone went. I got home from that trip and remembered thinking “Where did they find all of these amazing people, and how did they know to hire them?”
We had people with the strangest backgrounds who crushed it at their work. I couldn’t believe I got the chance to work with these people every day. And it was fun. Really fun. It was insane hours, but it was fun.
4. Drive Fast, Take Chances
We ran up against the redline all day, every day. There were many times I didn’t know if I’d get paid. I knew it was tight all the time. And I didn’t care. I would’ve worked there for free.
5. Suck Less Every Day
We heard this all the time from David and Henry, the co-founders. The smallest gains in some hard-fought battle would be met with genuine excitement. “Yes! We suck less every day!” There was no insincere talk about stodgy values. It was about getting better, one day at a time, and stringing enough of those together to make a real difference over time.
I’m sure there were day where we sucked more than the day before, but there weren’t many.
I hope there’s at least one thing in here that speaks to you wherever you are in your journey with your company. I still use all of these lessons every single day.