Tech Startups & Success: An Interview with Allocable CEO, Robert Wells

— Tips and personal stories on startup success from tech startup leader, Robert Wells.

Posted: August 18, 2016

people strategizing at a startup technology meeting

Several factors weigh into the success (or failure) of startups today. We asked Robert Wells, tech startup leader and mentor, to tell us about his experiences with success and failure.

Photo of Robert Wells CEO of AllocableRobert Wells is the CEO of Allocable, a seasoned Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and a trusted start-up technology executive. He holds a 17+ year successful track record of architecting, building and delivering innovations to market and managing the teams that bring ideas to life.

In this blog post, Robert shares some great entrepreneurial advice that you don't want to miss.

1. How did companies like (name your favorite big name startup) get started?

I love startup stories like Dropbox and Facebook who were so focused on bringing their products to market and fulfilling an unmet need that they turned down early acquisition offers from major industry players. In the end, their resolve and focus paid off, and their startups transformed into massive success stories.

Startups and startup founders have been catapulted into the spotlight in the last decade. The truth is, leading or working in a startup is a tumultuous experience. The startup world is a rollercoaster of emotions and instability. On the positive side, there are definite moments of pure excitement and a feeling of freedom. 

In my experience, working with startups for over 17 years, most entrepreneurs jump into the tumultuous and exciting world of startups to create financial independence or reinvent themselves. Some want to wake up every day with a sense of purpose or to build recognition. Some do it for altruistic reasons, to solve a problem, meet an unmet need and some do it as part of their mission to heal the world.

2. Why are some startups successful when most fail?

I used to think there was a formula with tools and processes to quickly create a successful startup. All you needed was a great idea, and if you followed this method, you were set. 

Experience has taught me that it isn’t a tool or process, or even a great idea that makes a successful startup--it's the people, timing and relentless tenacity of a cohesive team that strives to provide value & solve problems for their customer(s).

3. What makes a smart entrepreneur?

I believe a smart entrepreneur knows their capabilities and surrounds themselves with a strong team and experienced mentors. 

Entrepreneurs should consider the following advice:

• Don't fall in love with your product, fall in love with your customers and build & respond to their needs as quickly as possible.

• Build your startup based on 2 to 3 key assumptions. Everything boils down to these assumptions.

• Be clear & rational when building your startup. Make sure you have good mentors to help keep your thinking clear.  

• Know your value positioning statement and messaging - keep improving as you learn about your customers.

• Use the Scientific Method with both your product and business - Hypothesis + Experiments to prove it is true/false

• Focus on "de-risking" your startup from the beginning:

            - Convert assumptions into knowledge (At low cost, and as quickly as possible)

            - Decrease assumptions to increase value

            - Consume intellectual capital before outside capital

            - Know when to proceed and when to pivot


4. Describe a time you failed in a startup because of assumptions. What were they and how did they contribute to failure.

I started a company with a sales guru buddy of mine and a brilliant technologist. I was the COO. We had our Sales and Technology, and Operations covered. The company was a “think tank” accelerator.

We were trying to disrupt the traditional Accelerator model by combining Crowdfunding with a Tech Accelerator model. Our assumption was; if we developed a curated stable of technology innovations, we could crowdsource investors and crowdsource resources (startup swat teams) to build a pipeline of new tech startups.

As we began testing our assumption, we soon learned that we could easily find the investors but finding the right resources (startup teams) to run these innovations was challenging. Plus, we never properly planned for the legal ramifications as this grew across the country.

We pivoted a couple of times, added services and hosted events, but in the end, we had the wrong assumptions.

5. What’s your favorite personal startup success story that might inspire or teach someone else about going from idea to market?

After living in San Francisco and working in the tech startup scene, I moved back East to start a company with my father.  He was leaving his government job and had a hyper-niche skill set and experience. 

We packed his core experience and expertise into a unique service offered to Pharmaceutical and Medical Device organizations. We had a few early customers and learned all about their business and problems. We took our learning and formulated service offerings and products that solved major problems for these customers. 

Then, we went to work crafting messaging and evangelizing our services to our target customers. 

We poured 80% of our resources into sales & marketing and our company grew so fast that we tripled every year and soon had resources and customers all over the world. 

Lessons learned: find your unique value proposition, package it up professionally and sell, sell, sell. Let your customer drive your business and your product features.

8. Where do you see yourself ten years from now? Will you still be involved with startups and how?

My vision is to develop many other startups over the next ten years and beyond. I believe a natural transition will occur, from spending the majority of my day as a managing founder running the day-to-day business initiatives to an advisor & mentor to the founders and leaders running their startups.

A major goal of mine is to mentor startups and entrepreneurs as part of a team of mentors in a well-known accelerator program (think: Y Combinator, 500 Startups, TechStars).

I started this transition when I began mentoring startup founders in my spare time a couple of years ago. The other part of my vision is to teach my kids valuable entrepreneurial lessons, and maybe someday, they will have startups of their own.

9. If you could have coffee with any startup leader who would it be and why. And what would you want to talk about / ask them?

There are so many startup leaders I would want to spend time with. If Steve Jobs were alive today, he would be top on my list. Elon Musk of Tesla, Richard Branson of Virgin, Drew Houston of Dropbox, Tony Hsieh of Zappos, Dave McClure of 500 Startups, Jeff Bezos of, Mark Zuckerburg of Facebook, and Marc Benioff of SalesForce.

There’s so much to learn from them so I wouldn’t try to drive the conversation. I would let them speak freely about whatever was on their mind and let the conversation evolve from there.

10. Did you know that Henry Ford is NOT the person who said, "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said, 'Faster Horses.'"?

No, I’ve seen that quote in countless startup presentations. What is the real quote? [answer: No one knows who coined this saying, but the Henry Ford Museum confirms that there's no evidence that this was a saying of Ford's.]