Every startup begins with an innovative idea. But that’s the easy part. The key to long-term success, says Stephen Smyth, co-founder and CEO of Coord, a mobility company backed by Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, might actually come from your ability to limit innovation.
Smyth, who has founded and led several startups, says entrepreneurs often get caught up in fads and pen deals that aren’t healthy for the business.
“Not all growth is good growth,” Smyth said. It’s vital to stay focused and to learn to say ‘no.’”
If you revolutionize too much, you might “freak out” the market, Smyth said.
“Don’t try to innovate everything at once.”
For example, if you have an innovative technology, focus your creative energy on that, and follow best practices on pricing, marketing and delivery. If you have a standard product, innovate on pricing or marketing, Smyth said.
It’s good advice from someone who’s been there. Before heading up Coord, Smyth built and led a team of more than 120 people that developed and brought to market the first tablet designed for K-12 education, and he founded a travel startup that garnered angel investors and grabbed headlines before eventually folding.
Here, Smyth shared some hard-won tips with Urban-X for how tech and urban startups can build from great idea to successful company.
First, assume that whatever the founding concept, the company that you end up with might incorporate 20 percent of the original idea, Smyth said.
“You should always be challenging your assumptions,” Smyth said. “It’s important to know what to stop doing, and to learn what to not do.”
How does one learn what not to do? “You should be frequently meeting with other people, and not just in your sector. Investors have good insights,” Smyth said. “In general, it’s good to get informal investor feedback, early and often.”
Customers, as well, understand the industry and know what they want. “Engage them early and make them feel like they are part of your development,” Smyth said.
With training as an engineer, Smyth now runs Coord, a cloud-based platform that makes it easy for software developers to integrate transportation options for drivers and riders into smartphone apps, self-driving cars and any other technology stack. Coord is, essentially, a shared data layer that combines the many urban mobility services that have proliferated in cities in recent years.
“Our mission is to enable seamless mobility for everyone.”
The company launched in March and already is making waves. In San Francisco and Seattle, Coord powers a parking function on Google Maps – users can find available parking spaces near or far. Bike Hunt, an Alexa and Google Assistant app, uses Coord’s Bike-Share API for finding dock-less bikes, anywhere in the United States. And its Curbs API grabbed headlines recently for its ability to digitize city curbs, with information on loading and unloading zones as well as parking regulations – information that is widely useful for passenger and commercial delivery vehicles, as well as to city governments.
Coord’s Routing API allows users to travel from Point A to Point B when more than one form of transit is involved.
For instance, in New York City, if a commuter wants to get from Greenpoint, in northern Brooklyn, to midtown Manhattan, they’d have to download several apps. “You might know there is a ferry service, the subway and a bike-share you could use on the other end,” Smyth said, “but you’d have to cobble it together.”
“We need to figure out how to combine the capabilities of these different mobility services,” Smyth said.
Coord hopes to enable developers to “distribute widely” the best transportation options, he said.
“We generally believe that when people have better data, it makes for a better and more efficient transportation situation overall,” Smyth said.
Staying nimble in the fluctuating mobility world is something that Smyth deals with daily. Staying nimble in the startup world is equally important, he said.
And yet, Smyth added, it’s important to stay focused on your original intention. “Whatever the original idea is that you started the company with, there is a kernel of authenticity. Never lose that,” Smyth said. Young companies sometimes pivot or copy other companies, and get lost, he said. “Be clear on the core principle, about who you are as a company,” Smyth said, “but don’t get hung up on the detail.”
“Figure out the impact you want to have on the world and be flexible about everything else.”
In other words, start at the end.
Words by Lisa Collins.
Images by Justin Ryan Kim for URBAN-X.