Column: Five Lessons From Bezos On What To Do (And Not Do) When Leading A Startup

Igor Ryabenkiy's column on Forbes

Movies about great entrepreneurs often inspire, even if they occasionally don’t tell the whole truth. But I think they always provide valuable learning examples for budding entrepreneurs, and the film Bezos: The Beginning is no exception. Based on Bezos’s story depicted in the movie, I can highlight five important pieces of advice that I give to founders.

1. Focus on the product.

This is incredibly important. In the movie, Jeff Bezos tells his team that they won’t be spending a lot of time on the software—they’ll outsource it. The entire focus of the company is on the product. They’re thinking about the best possible user experience and what’s most important: selling books. They don’t spread their attention to anything unnecessary.
This is great business thinking: You don’t have enough resources to be the best at everything. But you do have the resources to make your product the best. When founders know this from the start, it can help them reach success with limited resources. Focus on the idea. Focus on the product. Focus on the team. This is what you must remember.
In my personal entrepreneurial and investor practice, there have been many cases where timely focus has helped achieve significant results. For example, one of my first serious investments was in a company that created a unique virtual reality technology, revolutionary for its time. The basic idea was to try to sell it to as many diverse buyers as possible from the fields of education, gaming, etc. The results we obtained were far from desirable. But after we focused on one large segment, the market quickly understood us, and we gained big clients and investors.

2. Don’t take the last dollar from your friends and family, even if the idea seems brilliant.

Every entrepreneur should pay attention to this point. There’s a scene in the film where Bezos goes to his parents, and they give him the last of their retirement fund.
I always tell people that it is normal to get their “first money” from friends and family. If they don’t believe in you, no one will. But I recommend that you never take anyone’s last dollar. Don’t force your mom to mortgage the house or give up her retirement savings—if your startup fails, what will your family do? Don’t forget about the vast majority of businesses that never repeat Amazon’s success story.

3. Disrupt. Don’t sell.

If you come up with an idea that will turn the market on its head, it will probably be difficult to sell. In the early days, Google couldn’t compete with Yahoo, but they ended up number one. In the film, Bezos couldn’t sell his idea to Barnes & Noble, but he was able to win the competition against the giant (although in real life, it’s been reported the other way around— that Bezos refused to work with Barnes & Noble). As of 2018, Barnes & Noble was worth about half a billion, while Amazon was worth a trillion.
If you have a clear vision, don’t waste your time trying to sell your idea—develop it yourself. This approach is not easy, but I’ve found it is essential for those who want to achieve the most ambitious goals.

4. Your team is everything.

I think Bezos’ story is a wonderful example of how a founder has to get people to believe in his project. Leaders must strive to attract the best and most qualified specialists for their business. Bezos demands a lot from his team, but he’s upfront that they will have to work hard. When founders are confident in the project, they’re able to convince others to get on board.
So, you always need to think about the quality of your team and about its motivation. At the beginning, Jeff Bezos didn’t give his team any stock options in the film. I can’t condemn or approve of this decision. It’s possible he just didn’t think about it at the time. But I can say that options for the team can be a great way to motivate project participants. At the beginning, a startup has very limited resources and a critical need of brilliant minds. So stock options are an important thing for modern founders to keep in mind.
When I invest in a startup, the team factor is very important to me. Ideas can change endlessly, and hypotheses can be disproven. But the professionalism and talent of the team will definitely help find the right solution. That is why people are the main asset of any startup.

5. Believe in your project.

Jeff Bezos was willing to leave behind a career and good salary for the sake of his project. He believed in his idea so much that he was willing to follow it, whatever the cost.
A company’s team, investors and market need the founders to believe in themselves so much that they go all the way with their product. As an investor, I can say that many venture capitalists don’t really like entrepreneurs who lack confidence. Often, these people take the first step with their company, and then as soon as someone offers to buy the company, they sell it.
Why? because they’re afraid of risk and don’t really believe they will achieve great success. I’ve seen this happen. Founders, believe in your projects. Look at Bezos; he didn’t sell the company at the start, even though the offer was exciting, and he went all the way to success.
And all the world could see the result.