8 Questions with Chris Heivly, author of “Build the Fort” and managing director of The Startup Factory

July 21, 2016
 

You know that magic that happens when you work with awesome people? We think it’s everything, and we love working with founders who bring that kind of chemistry into our days. Every month, we sit down with one of these execs to talk about startups, marketing, the future of their industries, world domination and whatever other topics pop up.

In the hot seat today:

Chris Heivly co-founded MapQuest (which sold to AOL for $1.2 billion), was sole managing director of 77 Capital (a $25 million venture fund), and has been an executive at five software companies. Currently, he is one of two managing directors of The Startup Factory, a seed investment fund making 10 to 14 new investments per year. A national writer and speaker about startups and startup communities, Heivly is also the author of “Build the Fort: Why 5 simple lessons you learned as a 10-year-old can set you up for startup success” and founder of the Big Top Job Fair.

1. The central theme of your book is that building a company from the ground up should be more like building a fort from the ground up – and entrepreneurs should embrace their inner 10-year-olds. Why?
I’ve been building things all my life, as an intrapreneur, a founder, an investor – and long before that, as a 10-year-old who built forts with my friends. When 10-year-olds want to build something, they bring a very simple view of the world to it. It starts with one question: “Wanna go build a fort?” And then kids hack every challenge as it comes along. They don’t start off designing shutters or planning to build a house – they just build a fort without further agenda, peer pressure, fear or angst. Entrepreneurs can learn a lot from this approach to business building.

2. What are some of the steps toward entrepreneurship that echo the way 10-year-olds build forts?
I talk about five lessons in the book:

  1. Socialize the idea without fear or inhibition. An idea that never makes the light of day will forever remain an idea that never has a chance of becoming something special.
  2. Partner with skilled and trustworthy people. Build a team of people who think the right way and augment each other’s skills, experiences and personalities – people you can trust and who can play a variety of roles when called upon.
  3. Gather the assets that are closest to you. Determine the minimal viable product to identify the resources you need now – not a year from now or five years from now.
  4. Create a short-term, collective purpose. Great companies execute on smaller, attainable mini-visions, which then enable them to extend their products into newer areas. (Think Mark Zuckerberg building an online platform to meet girls at Harvard, not setting out to create the world’s largest social media platform serving 1 billion-plus users.)
  5. Build the fort. Starting a company is easiest when you have the right mindset. Ten-year-old fort builders are driven by “I can do this” thinking, and entrepreneurs need that, too.

3. How is that different from the way some founders instinctively start new companies?
Adults seem to make things overly complex with a vision of what their companies will be in three to five years, but startups aren’t smaller versions of big companies. They’re totally different. My advice is to create mini-visions of the company that are based on what you can build over the next three months. These are the initial steps founders need to focus on.


4. Why did you open The Startup Factory?
Around 2009, I started networking an idea I had about bringing an accelerator to Raleigh-Durham. Places like Y Combinator and TechStars were in the news, and I thought the Southeast was ripe for a seed investment program. Entrepreneurs don’t need to move to the Valley or New York City to get started. This region has a long tradition of fostering companies that are built to last, and we wanted to extend that to tech startups.


5. What was the initial reaction to opening an accelerator in the Research Triangle?
The old guard doubted there were enough entrepreneurs in the area to even make it work, and I was this new guy in town, which made them more skeptical. I knew I was onto something, though, when I held an event for entrepreneurs and 80 people showed up. A few weeks later at the next one, 120 people came to talk about entrepreneurship. Today, The Startup Factory offers hands-on mentorship, seed capital and office space during a 12-week intensive startup accelerator, and we typically connect with about 1,000 startups a year.


6. After working with so many entrepreneurs, what do you see as the qualities inherent in successful founders?
Successful entrepreneurs totally jones on the freedom, excitement and creativity of starting with an empty sheet of paper and filling in the blanks. They feel the fear that comes with that, but they know how to create positive energy out of that fear. Fear is the great friction point, and how you deal with it dictates what kind of entrepreneur you will be.


7. What’s your favorite success story to come out of The Startup Factory?
We’ve had about 35 companies come through. It’s hard to pick one, but one of the standouts is CareLuLu. They’re on a mission to connect parents with daycare providers in a more authentic, accessible way, and to help the daycare providers focus on taking care of kids, instead of managing the billing, generating leads, etc. They’re a husband-wife team who came to Durham for three months and absorbed advice really well. At our demo day, they connected with an investor, then moved out to California, and now they’re kicking ass and making progress.


8. With so many successes on your resume, what have you been most proud of?
Am I proud of what we did at Mapquest? Yes. But half of that was luck. It was also 20 years ago. At The Startup Factory, we’ve rallied an entire community, but there are lots of folks involved in that. I can’t take all the credit. The book, however, is all me. And it wasn’t luck – just a lot of hard work. It took me nine months, writing four or five days every week while juggling a day job, and two weeks off work to write full time. I would add that I failed freshman English in college because of my inability to write. And after all that, I have a book that really works. Everyone gets it, and I’ve had so many people walk up to me and say, “I built forts, too.” I’m very proud of that.

 

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