Startup Lessons from Dr. Seuss

As I was reading some Dr. Seuss books that I bought to eventually read to my new granddaughter, I was reminded of a great book titled “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”. While my exercise is definitely more light-hearted, it is in that same spirit that I’ve discovered several startup lessons from Dr. Seuss’ narrative and underlying messages. I did the same thing with various Mother Goose rhymes and you can find that article here. I mean, how much more fundamental and principled can you get than Dr. Seuss and Mother Goose?  I hope you enjoy this article and decide to pass it along to others.

The Cat in the Hat

Focus

On pages 14-21 the Cat attempts to impress the kids and the fish by balancing more and more things with his hands, feet, head and tail. Ultimately, the Cat falls on his head and everything comes crashing down.

startup lessons“Look at me! Look at me!
Look at me NOW!
It is fun to have fun,
But you have to know how.
I can hold up the cup
And the milk and the cake!
I can hold up these books!
And the fish on a rake!
I can hold the toy ship
And a little toy man!
And look! With my tail
I can hold a red fan!
I can fan with the fan
As I hop on the ball!
But that is not all.
Oh, no. That is not all …”

Lesson for Startups: The great Steve Jobs (Apple co-founder and CEO) said it best during Apple’s 1997 Worldwide Developer’s Conference: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” For specific recommendations, see my related article titled “3 Tools for Maintaining Focus”.

Outsourcing

On pages 33-53 the Cat brings in Thing 1 and Thing 2 in an effort to fix things, but the fish is never comfortable with having them in the house and they end up making things even worse.  Ultimately, the boy catches the intruding visitors in a net to get rid of them.

Cat in the Hat - Things“Then I let down my net.
It came down with a PLOP!
And I had them! At last!
Those two Things had to stop.
Then I said to the cat,
‘Now you do as I say.
You pack up those Things
And you take them away!’ “

Lesson for Startups: Bringing in outsiders on a temporary basis to “fix” your company usually doesn’t work the way you expect. I’m not referring to advisors (see related article titled “Selecting an Advisor”) but rather contractors and consultants hired for something that is considered core to the business model and asking them to “take the bull by the horns and run with it”. Certainly the right ones can do some good but if it’s really “core” then you should be at least somewhat involved in their planning, should regularly check-in on their progress and should have a plan to bring the function in-house as soon as you can afford to.

Advisors

Throughout the book the fish sees what is coming next and regularly tries to give guidance and counsel to both the kids and the Cat. His opening statement sums it up nicely:

startup lessons“But our fish said, ‘No! No!
Make that cat go away!
Tell that Cat in the Hat
You do NOT want to play.
He should not be here.
He should not be about.
He should not be here
When your mother is out!’ “

Lesson for Startups: Sage advisors or board members are worth their weight in gold. You don’t have to do everything they suggest but at least give them a serious listen.

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Green Eggs and Ham

Messaging Refinement and Objection Handling

startup lessonsSam tries every possible way to make green eggs and ham sound appealing. When one approach doesn’t work, he tries another.

“Would you like them in a house?
Would you like them with a mouse?”
“Could you, would you, with a goat?
Would you, could you, on a boat?”
(Sam offers 10 other alternatives)

Lesson for Startups: You must continue to refine your value proposition through experimentation until it finally resonates with the intended audience(s). This applies to demand generation marketing messages as well as your sales approach, objection handling and, to some degree, fundraising.  Persistence is another lesson we can certainly learn from Sam.

Open-Mindedness and Experimentation

The protagonist repeatedly just assumes he won’t like green eggs and ham in any setting and makes claims as if he definitively knows this. He is obviously proven wrong but only after repeated badgering by Sam and actually only agreeing to test them to get Sam to go away.

startup lessons“I could not, would not, on a boat.
I will not, will not, with a goat.
I will not eat them in the rain.
I will not eat them on a train.
Not in the dark! Not in a tree!
Not in a car! You let me be!
I do not like them in a box.
I do not like them with a fox.
I will not eat them in a house.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them ANYWHERE!”

Lesson for Startups: Experimentation is critical to the valuable discovery and validation process startups must go through in their early days and also beyond. Being open-minded means trying things you actually don’t think will work but aren’t absolutely certain.

 Customer Trials

startup lessonsFinally, as a last resort Sam decides to push the protagonist to simply test green eggs and ham and see what happens. Of course, we all know the end result. The protagonist realizes that he actually likes green eggs and ham after all.

“You do not like them. So you say.
Try them! Try them! And you may.
Try them and you may, I say.”

Lesson for Startups: Often times, all the messaging in the world isn’t as powerful as simply letting a prospective customer try your product. I once heard someone say “ ‘Download Now’ is the new ‘Learn More’ ” and it’s true. Free trials are pretty much expected for most types of technology solutions and possibly otherwise.

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Fox in Socks

Simplicity and Clarity

startup lessonsWhat a complicated narrative the Fox uses with Mr. Knox and the same for the activities he expects him to undertake. To the Fox it’s all clear and easy but not to anyone else involved.

“And here’s a new trick,
Mr. Knox . . . .
Socks on chicks
And chicks on fox.
Fox on clocks
On bricks and blocks.
Bricks and blocks
On Knox on box.”

Lesson for Startups: Keep your value proposition and elevator pitch simple and clear. These are actually two different things. Simple means easily understood while clear means not easily confused with something else. Sometimes adding more narrative to make something clear reduces simplicity. So the key is to find the right balance of both.

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The Sneetches

Product-Market Fit

After McBean discovered how bad Plain-Belly Sneetches wanted stars on their belly, he built a “Star-On” machine to add such a star. In doing so, at some point all Sneetches had stars.

Sneetches-2“ ‘My friends’, he announced
In a voice clear and clean,
‘My name is Sylvester
McMonkey McBean.
And I’ve heard of your troubles.
I’ve heard you’re unhappy.
But I can fix that,
I’m the Fix-It-Up Chappie.
I’ve come here to help you.
I have what you need.
And my prices are low.
And I work with great speed.
And my work is one hundred
Per cent guaranteed!’ ”

Lessons for Startups: There are several lessons that can be drawn from MrBean’s discovery and ensuring pursuits.

  • Identify a genuine need in the market, something people must have
  • Segment the market to refine your target and develop what is called a “buyer personas” to specifically describe the target for your solution and the exact pains they experience (pains solved with your solution).
  • Communicate value in ways that are meaningful to your target and address their concerns. Notice McBean’s mention of low prices, great speed and a guarantee.

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Horton Hatches the Egg

Wearing Multiple Hats

startup lessonsEven though he is an elephant, Horton finds himself sitting on an egg at a top of a small tree to help his new friend Mayzie.

“The elephant laughed.
‘Why, of all silly things!
I haven’t feathers
And I haven’t wings.
ME on your egg?
Why, that doesn’t make sense.
Your egg is so small, ma’am,
And I’m so immense!’ “

Lesson for Startups: Especially in the early days, co-founders wear multiple hats and must be willing to do things they don’t know much about. They also must engage in un-sexy “grunt work”.

Commitments and Dedication

horton hatches the egg - freezingHorton in for a big surprise and disappointment when Mayzie totally abandons him, leaving him to sit on the egg through terrible weather, teasing by his animal friends and threatened by hunters. Yet he doesn’t budge, but rather stays firm on his commitment to Mayzie.

“But Horton kept sitting,
And said with a sneeze,
‘I’ll stay on this egg
And I won’t let it freeze.
I meant what I said
And I said what I meant . . .
An elephant’s faithful,
One hundred per cent!’ “

Lesson for Startups: You’re resolve and conviction will be regularly tested. Things will almost certainly get difficult and you might even find yourself getting close to running out of cash. You will also be sharing predictions and commitments with your employees, customers, investors, and advisors. Accomplishing what you said you will do and periodically exceeding expectations can be the single biggest contributor to successful fundraising because investors love betting on startups that meet their commitments. Consider incorporating some element of dedication, meeting commitments, or under-promising and over-delivering into your founding principles (see related article titled “Founding Principles – Do You Have Them?”)

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Yertle the Turtle

Leadership

Yertle was extremely selfish and greedy. He used his power as King to ultimately command 100% of the resources under his control to boost him high into the sky to accomplish his selfish objective of being able to see as far as possible. He even instilled fear in order to get his way. A turtle named Mack was at the bottom of the stack and increasingly in pain as the stack got higher and higher. After Mack burped, the stack of turtles came tumbling down, putting Yertle into the mud and rendering the other turtles free from his dictatorship.

startup lessons“ ‘Turtles! More turtles!’
He bellowed and brayed.
And the turtles way down
In the pond were afraid.
They trembled. They shook.
But they came. They obeyed.
From all over the pond,
They came swimming by dozens.
Whole families of turtles,
With uncles and cousins.
And all of them stepped
On the head of poor Mack.
One after another,
They climbed up the stack.”

Lesson for Startups: Leadership is 100% earned, not commanded or entitled due to tenure, position, compensation or other objective criteria. Startup CEO’s should never think of themselves as the king over a kingdom and absolutely should never attempt to accomplish objectives by instilling fear. All it takes is one sudden action or misstep to crush a leader’s influence. Another reason for founding principles and living by them at all times. Your employees are watching. Lead by example.

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Gertrude McFuzz

Mistakes and Failure

Gertrude is jealous of another bird that had a fancy tail with multiple colored feathers versus her single, short feather. She discovers a way to add more and different colored feathers to her tail. In doing so she takes it to such an extreme that she can’t even fly. Initially she is embarrassed but eventually learns a valuable lesson.

“To lift Gertrude up
Gertrude McFuzzAlmost broke all their beaks
And to fly her back home,
It took almost two weeks.
And then it took
Almost another week more
To pull out those feathers.
My! Gertrude was sore!
And, finally, when
All of the pulling was done,
Gertrude, behind her,
Again had just one . . .
That one little feather
She had as a starter.
But now that’s enough,
Because now she is smarter.”

Lesson for Startups: You will make many, many mistakes. Hopefully not any so severe that they kill your company. But the lessons learned from mistakes often provide more value than successes. When mistakes happen, step back with your co-founders and employees to make sure the value is gained.

 

Author: Gordon Daugherty

Over the past 15 years Gordon has seen nearly 1,000 startup pitches, advised more than 200 entrepreneurs and been involved with raising over $45M in growth and venture capital. Throughout his 28 year career in high tech, serving twice as President and three times as CMO, Gordon has both an IPO and a $200M acquisition exit under his belt. Now his emphasis is purely focused on helping startups and early stage tech companies. Through his Shockwave Innovations advisory practice and as Managing Director for Austin’s Capital Factory startup accelerator, Gordon is an active angel investor, VC and startup advisor.

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