A Start Up Trek – Strategery

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Gantt chart for Neutral Bouyancy Simulator. Source Wikipedia.

I am starting a new public accessible prototyping lab in Huntsville, Alabama, called MindGear Labs based on the fab lab model. I’ve dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur and have done a fair amount of research on the topic. But this is my first attempt at starting a business. Here is where I document weekly my mistakes and successes in creating a business from the ground up.

I’ve turned in my business plan and applications to a couple of banks. Now I wait to see what they say. Initial signs have been encouraging, but until I have a letter of intent I can’t move forward with ordering equipment, signing leases, hiring people, etc. So I’ve been playing Civilization V. I’m embarrassed to say how many hours Steam says I’ve played that game. Steam must be exaggerating – but Civ is definitely one of my all-time favorites.

I generally go for the scientific victories, and sometimes the cultural or diplomatic. My first victory was scientific, but I found the end clip to be anti-climatic. I guess I expected to see a huge spacecraft leaving orbit with a great ball of smoke and fire. I don’t understand those people who play the game exclusively for military victories. That seems to include my son, by the way. I generally mind my own business, building Wonders and other buildings, and don’t pay attention to the other civilizations except to trade. Until one of them attacks me. Then I hold them off while stopping all my builds so I can to build a big army. The annoyance I feel being interrupted is enough that I’ll usually conquer half their civilization before I accept peace and go back to building.

While playing I kept thinking of things I need to do to get MindGear off the ground. But most of the work would have to wait until I have that letter of intent, or the actual loan, which can take 6 weeks after the loan is approved. So I figured I’d better write everything down. Of course every time I wrote something down I thought of something else I should do, and the list got longer and longer. Then I started thinking of what items I had to get done first so that I could complete the next items. Needless to say this list started getting long and complicated.

Enter the Gantt chart.

A friend of mine introduced me to gantter.com for one of my day job projects. If you’re not familiar with Gantt charts or need a free way to build one I suggest you check them out. Briefly, a Gantt chart lets you build a complete set of tasks, the dependencies between the tasks (which tasks have to be done before, after or during another task), duration of tasks, and what resources (usually people) are assigned that task. Interesting story: my day job involves space exploration. I’ve been told by several people that were there that Werhner Von Braun, the rocket pioneer that oversaw development of the Saturn V, which took us to the moon, kept a massive Gantt chart outside his office. It covered several walls from top to bottom and had a couple people whose jobs were to keep it up to date. Von Braun could look at the chart and determine the current critical path, that sequence of tasks that at that point in the program was driving the Saturn V delivery date. He would use the chart to know which of his departments he needed to assist, cajole or otherwise push to accelerate the schedule.

So I started building my chart. But deciding which tasks come first requires a strategy. I have to set priorities – just like deciding if I want to build wonders or armies for my civilization. Or scheduling stage vibration tests, engine ground firings or system integration test to man-rate my spacecraft. When do I start marketing and how aggressive do I want to be? While I have my location narrowed down to two choices, I will soon need to pick between the two. How many people do I want to hire for opening day? What stock should I carry? Should I ask the Chamber of Commerce to do a ribbon cutting ceremony? Some of these questions I’ve already addressed in my business plan. But some decisions I’ve put off until I have more information, or frankly more time to think about them. And many of these decisions I’ll have to revisit as I learn more and unforeseen events happen.

Building the Gantt chart was very helpful for me. I wish I had included it in my business plan. In building it I found all sorts of things I should be doing instead of playing Civ. But hey, I needed a break. In case you’re wondering, my target date, assuming everything goes right, is July 1. After nearly 20 years of project management I know it never goes right. Heck, one of the two locations won’t even be ready by July 1. While I wait on the banks I’ll concentrate on working my critical path. Hopefully no one will interrupt me while I’m building.

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