Startup as Step Function

“I will never use this again”.  In the time-honored tradition of high school students everywhere, my 16 year old son was making the argument that he was being forced to learn useless information. This time he was decrying the futility of mastering step functions in math class. In an attempt to defend the value of a broad-based education and fulfill my parental obligation to enlighten the lad, I produced a web page citing the widespread use of step functions in the “world of business” (my son’s current career choice). Zing! Score one for dear old Dad.


This small victory reminded me of a recent breakfast meeting with two new friends. We were at a cool cafe in Brunswick, ME called the Little Dog.  As we munched on bagels, one of my friends began talking about how early stage startups go through a series of sporadic steps as milestones are achieved. In other words, there is no smooth upward growth curve as seen in established companies. I thought about this concept for a moment and decided it fit my situation perfectly. My experience so far has been a series of steps. Whether it’s landing a grant, attracting a new investor, or making a design breakthrough, each of these events are discrete steps preparing my company for launch. Although necessary, it can make for a jagged process of frenetic activity punctuated by stretches of downtime.


Looking back over the past year, I can see two important lessons I’ve learned as O’Brien Medical navigates through these early milestones. The first is not to force things. The process can only be accelerated so much by hard work and efficiency. At some point, you have to just let things happen. Plans mature over time and if the overall strategy is sound, there is no need for excessive tactical micromanagement or shortcuts. The second lesson is that one person can only manage a certain number of steps at a time. No matter how capable you think you are, we all have limits. I brushed up against those limits this past summer when I was working on 3-4 company-related projects at a time (in addition to my full-time practice and family life). Now I have a better idea of where those limits are and plan to keep them in mind as things progress into the future.