Driven to Succeed: Getting
Inspiration From Plumbers
Folks in their own service vans
know as much about startups
as we do at my high-tech outfit
most of the expected clichés, right down to the
catered lunches and company-logo hoodies. But
after a few years of rubbing elbows with tech bros
and wannabe visionaries, I’ve found there’s often
more to learn from founders with ambitions less
grandiose than changing the world. These folks are
more concerned with keeping paychecks coming
and putting gas in that van. These are entrepreneurs in the old-fashioned sense, who start a business to provide a better life for themselves and
their families, rather than to make a killing in an
IPO and have books written about them.
Once you start looking for them, you see these
business owners all over the place, not just driving
who moves to a new town and hangs out a shingle,
hoping patients will start calling.
They are in many respects bigger risk takers
than the Silicon Valley crowd. There’s no fallback
job at Dropbox or Facebook waiting for them if
their company doesn’t fll its next funding round;
there’s no one else’s money on the line. On the
contrary, these entrepreneurs put their careers
and savings at risk every day. They know what it’s
like to face down real failure, the kind that comes
with foreclosure and personal bankruptcy.
So what have I learned from plumbers? Three
First, it’s essential that you treat your staf as
apprentices, not just as employees. Your team is taking risks just like you—and their reward
shouldn’t be a mere shot at the brass ring. They are eager to learn everything they can. From
the receptionist to the CFO, fnd out what your employees’ dreams are and help them along
the path they’re on.
Second, make sure your company is doing something useful, even essential, for its custom-
ers. There are few services greater than making a broken toilet or clogged sink work again.
If your company isn’t providing something just as vital and fundamental to your customers’
lives, then you may not be long for the startup world.
Third, remember that it’s your name on the van. Your reputation is at stake, and it will be
enhanced or sufer depending upon your eforts. If you own a new business, you can assume
that pretty much nobody has ever heard of you, which means potential customers can go only
on your character and record.
You may not be driving a van with a fve-foot logo and your company’s name on it around
town (yet). But no matter how sexy a startup, all founders can learn from the people who do.
ONE THING I NEVER imagined when I became an entrepreneur is that I’d acquire a deep appreciation for panel vans, especially the ones with small-business decals displayed on the sides. They always remind me of how important small and self-made busi- nesses are, and inspire me in my own work.
Their drivers are unexpected and valued peers.
Window installers, providers of cleaning services, HVAC repair
guys, electricians, and, most of all, plumbers: These are people who
have braved the sometimes fetid waters of startup life and actually
built a business. Every time I see one of their vans, I feel encouraged.
More important, I’ve begun to take notes from them.
Being a startup founder in San Francisco, I could, of course,
choose from more techy peers as well—people with whom, on the
surface at least, I share more in terms of education, vocation, and
industry. My company is a software startup, after all, replete with
Thomas Goetz is a co-founder
and the CEO of Iodine, a digital
health startup based in San
Francisco. He is also the author
of TheRemedy. Follow him on
LAUNCH 32 - INC. - MARCH 2017