Fernish’s founders Lucas Dickey and Michael Barlow have prime backgrounds in product management, engineering, design, sales, and finance. Their collective resumes include time in the trenches at Amazon and J.P. Morgan. When it came to launching their subscription service for home furnishings, though, they often traded expertise for proof of concept. Dickey and Barlow are methodical about ensuring each course of action boosts growth, regardless of what their egos may be telling them. This attitude is working in their favor. In the two years since they founded Fernish, the company has grown to 35 employees and their customer base numbers in the thousands.
Continue reading or listen in on the recent conversation with DeMarcus Williams, Director of Silicon Valley Bank’s Early Stage Practice, and Hisham Ibrahim, Faculty Member at Lean Startup Co., as Dickey and Barlow share advice on avoiding rookie mistakes that block growth in innovation.
Rookie Mistake #1: Coding Before Learning
Dickey and Barlow started with a question: “Why is it such a pain in the butt for urban young professionals to buy, own, move, sell, and store furniture?” The founders knew from their own experience that professional millennials move often—Dickey moved 10 times in 12 years, Barlow moved five times in six years. After lugging all that furniture around, they realized “retail had not innovated around the changing [millennial] lifestyle,” as Barlow puts it.
Curious if their experience was indicative of a larger population, they combed through statistics and blog posts from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Move.com, Rent.com, Zillow, and Redfin. The data on young urban professional behavior patterns aligned with their experience, giving the founders the initial confidence to go after a North American demographic seeking “high quality furniture without the commitment.”
For some founders, this data would be enough to build a product around. But Dickey and Barlow understand the importance of putting customer discovery before coding. Before they got into account presentation and merchandise, they used services like Google surveys to help generate their catalog, and they communicated with potential customers through email. “Learn the things you need to learn before you write code,” says Dickey, who adds that this strategy is also good use of VC capital.
Dickey and Barlow didn’t work off customer surveys alone. They hadn’t worked jobs lugging 100-pound pieces of furniture before, so they took the concierge MVP approach. They performed the first 30 deliveries themselves to better understand the pain points in furniture delivery. “We learned a lot about what matters to customers in the home,” says Barlow. “Pre-assembly versus non pre-assembly, how to balance customer expectations with the realities of LTL transport, and potential breakage [issues].”
They not only validated their business idea, they also uncovered a small detail that made a huge difference in customer satisfaction. Felt stickies, when placed on the bottoms of furniture legs, help balance chairs and tables regardless of the flooring situation in a home. “They are the delighters at the end of the day,” says Barlow.
Rookie Mistake #2: Taking a DIY Approach When Outsourcing is Best
Dickey came from Amazon, the epitome of a build everything in-house ethos, and had to fight his instinct and ego when it came to customizing Fernish software. “There’s an element of pride of work that comes with writing the software yourself,” he says, “and an inherent distrust of what others have done if you didn’t participate in that process.” So what stopped him from indulging these tendencies? Knowledge that pride can bottleneck progress and impede rapid growth. “We needed to be thoughtful about saying, ‘I don’t actually need my engineering team building that,’” he says.
The founders clarified Fernish’s core competencies versus the factors that differentiate them in the marketplace. The consumer “doesn’t care what ancillary software you’re using,” Dickey says. They care that you’re providing a good service.
Dickey suggests doing a build/borrow/buy analysis (or, as they think about it at Fernish: “crawl/walk/run”) to avoid the time suck coding can create. Consider where you can outsource platforms, bring in individual advisors or advisory teams, and otherwise keep the focus on necessary competencies.
As an example, Dickey says, a startup can crawl using RIPE, then walk with a subscription billing platform, before running with building their own business logic. This helps distribute engineering efforts with a mind toward growth.
“You have to deprogram yourself a little and say, ‘Where can I be prideful about the quality of my work and do something innovative, and where do I actually just need to grind?’” says Dickey.“Learn the things you need to learn before you write code.” Click To Tweet
Rookie Mistake #3: Surrounding Yourself with Yes
Oftentimes the biggest blocker to growth is an entrepreneur who doesn’t know when to get out of his or her own way, says Williams, who provides a platform for founders to interact and share ideas at SVB. These founders lack an ability to “surround themselves with the right people who are willing to check them… when their time would be better spent elsewhere,” he says. If those checks and balances aren’t in place, the likelihood of success is slim.
Founder delusion complexes sink startups. While pride helps entrepreneurs tackle seemingly impossible challenges, it has to be balanced with pragmatism, says Dickey, whether you’re talking software development, service development, or other company processes and practices.
Rookie Mistake #4: Using Poor Hiring and Retention Practices
Culture may feel like a fuzzy concept to define, but Barlow notes that it can either stymie or accelerate growth. Barlow and Dickey cultivated 360 feedback loops and set cultural principles and operating values early. They looped the first ten employees into the values creation process, collectively setting up tenets like “always get better,” “care for the communal,” “drive the mission,” and “be empowered.” That last item comes from the founders’ strong belief in Andy Grove’s high output management style and the exponential value in teaching others. They’re avid about “teaching others to fish instead of fishing for them” and set clear goals for employees to avoid bottlenecking progress.
These values inform the behavioral questions the Fernish team uses in interviews with potential hires. They also double down on these points over the lifecycle of the business, such as during company-wide meetings, when they call out specific instances of “getting better” or “caring for the communal.” Dickey says it’s important to repeat core values out loud to ensure they’re being used in daily business practices.“You can't switch your story on a regular basis because that will hurt you on retention.” Click To Tweet
Rookie Mistake #5: Muddling the Company Narrative
By their nature, startups pivot often, but consistency in narrative is key to both customer and company retention. “You need to make sure that you fulfill promises— especially internally—in this narrative context because as a collective entity, [employees] have a really good memory,” says Dickey. Startups are built on talent, and founders have to be thoughtful about the stories they’re presenting their talent. “You can’t switch your story on a regular basis because that will hurt you on retention,” says Dickey.
Barlow acknowledges that maintaining a consistent narrative is challenging for founders, who are in uncharted territory by definition. “No one’s done this exact thing you’re doing as good as you are going to do it, right?” he says. “There’s no way to be perfect about it,” he adds, but being mindful of the impact company narrative has on employees helps founders strive for balance.
Rookie Mistake #6: Getting Stuck in Analysis Paralysis
Dickey admits he and Barlow have engaged in analysis paralysis in the past, but they now use speed as a business tactic. They separate out the issues that demand deliberation versus ones that demand a decision be made quickly so the team can move forward. Dickey says this attitude is based upon the Andy Grove principle that “sometimes indecision is far worse than making the wrong decision, which you can quickly learn from and move on.”
Thanks to Jennifer Maerz for contributing this piece. If you seek to bring the entrepreneurial spirit to your organization, Lean Startup Co. can help.