Martin Babinec’s 5 keys to startup success

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This week the University of Rochester hosted Martin Babinec, an acclaimed entrepreneur and prolific champion of Upstate New York’s startup ecosystem.  While living in California, Babinec founded TriNet in 1988, which provides a range of human resources and payroll services to small and midsize companies.  

During his 20 years as the company’s CEO, TriNet grew tremendously. Today, TriNet has more than 3,600 employees and is publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange at a valuation that tops $4 billion. Babinec, a resident of the small town of Little Falls (about midway between Syracuse and Albany), has also spent years investing his time and money supporting and developing resources to enable upstate entrepreneurs.

Martin Babinec

As this year’s Spring Lecture speaker at the Ain Center for Entrepreneurship, Babinec outlined his “5 Keys to Startup & Venture Capital Success”:

  1. Get help learning how to sell – then get out there.  Selling is not just an under-appreciated skill, there are amazing sales professionals out there that can help a founder to become much more effective at selling. Even when TriNet had few resources, Babinec made sure to invest in learning how to sell.  “Learning by doing” just isn’t enough.  And in addition to honing your sales skills, you need to get out there and meet as many people and prospects as you can; sales require proactivity and commitment.
  2. Give first – relationships will follow.  Babinec credited his friend – the famed venture capitalist Brad Feld – with clarifying this principle.  The relationships you build with prospective mentors, partners, thought leaders, investors and others are a critical component of success.  Be open and giving toward people you want to develop relationships with, and that attitude will often be reciprocated and lead to long-term, beneficial outcomes for all.  
  3. Play the long game: put team and company ahead of self.  It is important, according to Babinec, for entrepreneurs and leaders to remember to keep the interests of the company ahead of their own personal success. There are often situations where these interests are at odds, but keeping in mind that the team and the company must be the “primary” concern helps to ensure success.  And the success of the company, in reality, also will create personal success for the leader.  
  4. Company culture: common values and accountability.  It creates “an unstoppable force” when a company’s employees truly work in tandem, as they share a common vision and a common goal.  And one of the hardest things to do is to fire a high-performing employee who doesn’t fit the company culture.  Yet it is critical, Babinec says.
  5. Deliver on expectations: both big and small.  This advice is not just for startups but applies more broadly in life.  When people meet their commitments, good things follow.  When companies meet theirs, success is bound to follow.

Like much of the best business and success advice, Babinec’s advice sounds straightforward enough.  Yet putting all of it into practice – and doing so year after year – is much harder than it sounds.    

Notice also what is missing from this list.  No mention of “a great idea.”  Or that the entrepreneur must be a brilliant technologist or scientist.  Those are the sorts of ingredients that many associate with successfully starting a startup, especially given our area’s superb research universities.  

Yet as Babinec points out, the real ingredients are quite different.  Treat people well.  Do what you say.  Learn how to sell.  These are not about technology or “product” but about implementation, decency and hard work.  Those are the habits of great entrepreneurs and leaders, and they are available for all to follow.           

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