Reflections on Entrepreneurship with Business Advisor Dan Light


Build. Test. Adapt. Repeat.

These are just some of the unwavering values that have helped Dan Light, Founder of Dan Light Consulting, grow to be an influential voice in the entrepreneurial community in his hometown of Warrenton, VA as well as across the country (and world).

I’ve been very fortunate to have the opportunity to sit down with Dan, who has a combined 45 years experience in startups and tech. That’s over 4 decades! As a serial entrepreneur, Dan’s founded or been a principal in four small businesses in remarkably diverse spaces. In addition, he played a pivotal role in the IPO of a fifth company and has contributed to the success of hundreds of other companies. These companies have been in industries such as defense contracting, information systems, textile production, environmental protection, and telecommunications.

In this episode, Dan and I have a candid conversation as he shares his thoughts on entrepreneurship, what early-stage entrepreneurs should focus on, as well as what it’s like to work with him and how he provides value to budding ventures. If you’re looking for detailed thoughts and advice from an entrepreneur that has zero hesitation taking chances or speaking truthfully about starting up, this is the episode for you.


Who is Dan Light?

Well, presently I advise early stage companies. I’ve had four small businesses of my own and participated in the startup and growth of hundreds of others. I’m very interested in entrepreneurs and seeing businesses thrive and survive.

What is it that attracts you to entrepreneurship?

There always seems to be something different. Always somebody has a different spin, even if it’s an old problem, it’s a different spin. And that’s where you can affect the outcome in years to come is setting that foundation. Once you get out, even a year, a lot of times it’s more costly and more difficult to correct problems than if you nip them in the bud.

What advice would you offer to someone that is already in business or thinking of starting one?

Well, I think there’s probably a lot of better people to ask than me, but I would say that number one, make sure you’re solving a problem that somebody wants a solution to.

Say someone says, “I’m starting a pizza shop.

If you’re not solving a problem necessarily, think about why somebody would buy your pizza instead of Papa John’s or Domino’s or somebody else. There’s got to be a reason for customers to come to you.

Are you a fan of the lean startup methodology?

Yes

Sticking to the lean startup methodology, what is your advice to get outside of the building and validate that there is a need?

Getting out of the building is a must! As Steve Blank says, “There is no truth in books.”

At best a book is six months out of date by the time it’s published. So you don’t want to rely strictly on what you can find in the library to do your market research. It may be as simple as to just take a clipboard and go out and talk with prospective customers and and ask if they like your idea.

“What do you think about this?” “If I did this with that, would you like that better?” Advances in technology make it so easy to run A/B tests on different ideas and concepts. The time does to do things right is in the beginning.

It may look like for a long time that you’re floundering or you seem to be wandering around aimlessly. Yet where would you rather spend the money, up front when you can quit if you realize there is no market, would you create a company with a lot of money only to later find out nobody wants what you have to offer? How expensive is that?

Unfortunately, too many companies start with latter option.

RCA used to have a program they called, “Build a little test a little.”

They were referring to software primarily, but it applies to just about anything you want to do. You start off and you create, or you put together your building block, and then finally test it. So build, test, continue or repeat.

What’s it like working with you as an Advisor?

It’s a question of, “Where’s the problem?” What’s the problem, not the symptom, but what’s the problem? A lot of times it’s bringing that problem out, separating problems from symptoms, and then outlining a plan to go forward that incorporates that build and test, build and test, build and test, build and test, to where you’re comfortable with what you’re doing and at the pace that you’re doing it.

How do you distinguish between problem and symptom?

Well, I don’t know a lot about the agile methodology to be perfectly honest, but they seem to have a real good idea in developing a features list and then developing features as you go with a minimal product set and the minimum viable product to get out and start seeing if people want what you’re trying to sell. I have to go through the same thing that I’m telling the entrepreneur to go through, you know, build and test. The exception being I try to uncover, and then put into perspective, to try and get that separation between problem and symptom.

“Build and Test” is meant to be a continual process, correct?

I don’t care if you’re a fortune 50 company, you’ve got to keep testing. You’ve got to keep making sure that what you’re offering people is what they want. You know you’re never too big to fail.

Thinking of funding, how to explain what it means to be fundable?

One of the first things is you got to make sure that the person that you’re going to for funding is actually funding your type of company. Then it’s just a matter of providing, again, can you meet their requirements?

Too many times you see restaurant people try to approach folks who strictly finance tech companies or vice versa. In that scenario, you’re not going to get any money out of them to begin with. You’re wasting your time beating your head against the wall.

So first find somebody who’s interested in you or your type of company. Then most of them will tell you right up front what their requirements are. If you can meet them, great! If you can’t then either work on meeting them or work on meeting somebody else’s requirements.

What is your preferred funding strategy for early-stage ventures?

I think the best in the beginning is bootstrap as long as you can. Then, if you have to go out and get other money, whether it’s debt or equity funding, know what you’re going to do with it and what you expect the outcome to be.

What type of companies do you prefer to work with?

When I started this in 1990, I started with the intention of working with technology companies. Yet I looked back over my client list and though there have been technology companies, there’s also been a lot that aren’t technology companies. For example, 3D printers, which I guess you could argue is a technology company, but daycare centers for medically challenged children, clothing manufacturers, rain boot manufacturers, to name a few. You could say I’ve intentionally stayed a generalist.

So you represent all companies, not just the popular ones, correct?

I’ve always said that if you have an interesting problem, then I’m interested in helping you solve it.

How would someone reach out to you how would they get in contact with you?

Well, like everybody else these days, I’m on on the web at DanLightDirect.com and on Facebook at Dan Light Consulting. I guess they could probably ask you as well.