Two years ago today, I took this photo and sent it to my Dad. He was a fleet maintenance manager for a trucking company based in the Motor City. An award winning fleet maintenance manager, actually. But the last thing he wanted was for me to follow in his footsteps. It was a high-pressure job. Over time, a beeper turned into more tech-forward communication devices. Family outings, dinner, and even sleep was regularly interrupted by the need to get a truck back on the road. He wanted something better for me, and that was definitely not going to be found in a truck garage.
When I sent that photo, I said “I guess you can’t take the diesel out of the Sills”. It was the beginning of a hot Memphis day spent in the garage of a friendly trucking fleet. I watched as the first set of Preteckt prototypes were installed into twenty trucks. The only notable difference between this garage and my Dad’s was the Southern accent.
Back then every bit of our technology was handled by me. I designed and built hardware, soldered thousands of resistors so small you needed to use needle tweezers to handle them, developed our cloud computing architecture, implemented data science algorithms, and programmed our user interface. I love prototypes. I’ve been making them for research labs for years. This was my dream job.
One month after that picture was taken, we had no revenue, no new investment, and no money in the bank. We had failed. I moved back home.
Shortly after we finally admitted to our advisors at Start Co that our company had failed, an unexpected thing happened: we closed our funding round. These things are related. Golden Rule #1:
Be open with your investors
Six months after that picture was taken, we hired our first employee. A lead data scientist that is still our number one. We knew we needed to expand our dev team, but running out of funds taught us to be tight with our funds. Very tight. We tried to convert our early development partner into a customer so we could generate revenue from our MVP. But the hardware prototype we developed for the MVP was failing, and we didn’t know why. When they failed, we lost all communication with them.
We didn’t want to risk losing our one potential source of revenue, so we hid the hardware failures from our customer. I was tasked with making a new version of the hardware unit that didn’t fail, but the failure could never be replicated on the lab bench, so our product cycle was guess, wait, repeat. For months. We eventually solved the problem, but we never did convert that customer. We stalled our progress for nothing. Golden Rule #2:
Be open with your customers
A little over a year since our first prototypes were installed, our hardware issues were behind us and we had collected enough data to make some real predictions. We saved money for our customers. We closed another round of funding just before we were invited to join 500 Startups in San Francisco. It was time to pour fuel on the fire. We hired. Tech. Sales. More Tech. More Sales. We invested in great people, so we could quickly take advantage of all we had learned. We spent months rebuilding the foundation. A solid, scalable architecture. Actual engineering. Code reviews. Automated testing frameworks. Sales was on a customer discovery mission. Customers recognized the value but were sitting on purchase orders. An hour after talking with us, they start to have doubts. We have a problem.
It’s now two years since that picture was taken. Many on our team are remote, but we came together in Memphis this week. Twelve people in a conference room. The largest Preteckt gathering ever. I hope to look back two years from now and think that I got this part right the first time. Golden Rule #3:
Be open with your team
This time our starting point was putting everything on the table. The details about the tech that the sales guys weren’t being told. The exact number of units sold. The margins. Our runway. The progress on every OEM partnership. The difficulty of raising funds in December. Lead times on manufacturing. Our strengths. Our weaknesses.
There was one investor who attended the meeting. He has been a trusted advisor since day one. After the meeting, he came down on me like a load of bricks because there was one thing I didn't put on the table. He said I needed my team to really feel the reason why I get up every day.
I have a great team. We hired people who love to solve puzzles. People who can’t stop thinking about solutions. I’ve never seen them as energized as they have been this week. We invested in this team. We gave them the ability to grow. To lead. To learn.
I get up every day because I work for my team. And they’re a great boss.