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Igniting your Startup

Brian McIlwain

Fire requires three things: heat, fuel, and oxygen. When carefully balanced, it can keep you warm. If imbalanced, it can consume all, die, or both. Your startup is the same. How can you keep your startup at a steady burn, slipping neither into an abyss nor an inferno?

Igniting your Startup

Fire requires three things: heat, fuel, and oxygen. When carefully balanced, it can keep you warm. If imbalanced, it can consume all, die, or both.

Your startup is the same.

How can you keep your startup at a steady burn, slipping neither into an abyss nor an inferno?


Heat is your spark, your unique solution.

sparks rising from a fire Photo by Maria P on Unsplash

Your solution does not need to be “never before seen” to be unique. Instead, your customers should be able to recognize some part of your offering as unique.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a product recipe, location, or a service guarantee - as long as your customers remember you by your spark, you have achieved an identity.

Conversely, your spark is lost when your customers can no longer use it to distinguish you from your competition. If you don’t relight this spark quickly, know that embers do not last long.

On at least some dimension, you must always remain “hot.” If not, even while walking, you are (un)dead.

But, if you’re here, that isn’t likely your problem.

Set to temperature

Startups focus too much on “hot” and established companies too little.

If you make a contained fire too hot and the container does not break, it runs out of oxygen. Packaged as a firework, you enjoy a blinding flash and then darkness.

You cannot be more “special” than your investment can sustain.

You cannot develop your spark so much that you transcend the reality of your customers back on earth.

We think of fire as one temperature - HOT! In reality, the heat involved can vary immensely. Fire, as with your business, can burn hotter or cooler as required by the environment and remain lit.

a stick catching on fire poking cooling lava Photo by Katya Ross on Unsplash

In business, your spark must always be there. But, the effort allocated to maintaining your signal light must vary with the other needs of your business.


Oxygen is your investment.

Of the three, oxygen tends to feel the most personal - you know that you must breathe it too. Investment is needed not only in your business but in yourself.

The investment needed must cover many domains. Cash on hand, materials, supplier relationships, your team - all of these must start on investment before being sustained on profits.

Meanwhile, you still need to eat, sleep, and cover your needs. As a founder, you are an indispensable part of your business and should treat your self-investment as seriously as your business’s operating capital.

Your self-investment is multi-dimensional and should satisfy physical, mental, social, and spiritual needs.

In a fire, the abundance of oxygen controls how fast a fire can burn. Your investment limits the speed at which you can grow - we even call it “burn rate.”

Because it rains

When oxygen is too abundant in a fire, you lose control. It burns faster than you can replenish its fuel.

If you invest faster than your customer base can grow, you may experience intense, radiant limelight.

firework exploding Photo by Lewis Zhao on Unsplash

But, beneath the suit, you risk death from starvation before your next customers can arrive.

Most failed startups die from “growing too fast.” They grew and deployed investment more than the new customers they sought.

Customer demand is not constant. If a startup over-optimizes for the peaks, it may not survive a sudden drop into the valleys.

As plain as it may be, maintain enough investment in reserve to survive until your next batch of customers. You can never stop breathing.

Maintain your rainy day fund with reserves of cash and everything else needed to produce your product.


Your fuel is your customers.

It may seem that the best fuel source is the biggest one you can find. But, you do not start a fire with logs.

When you are small, it is best to ignore the big clients and focus on the deals you can optimally deliver.

Catch the spark

Fire starts with a bed of kindling. Kindling is small, dry, and easy to ignite.

The purpose of kindling is to catch the initial spark and ignite.

Start your business with clients that are small and ready. These clients are leaders, those willing to “catch your spark” and ignite something new.

Until you succeed with leaders, old or new, do not allow yourself to be distracted by the siren call of “bigger fish.”

Leveling up

Loose kindling can help the first flames come to life. But, loose kindling keeps you running - it will not long sustain a fire.

Lone wolfs or unconnected clients do not sustain your business.

If clients-of-one come through your door, you are welcome to make a sale. But, if this becomes the majority of your clientele, you will need to fix this.

Small fire catching Photo by Gleb Lukomets on Unsplash

Kindling does not maintain a fire on its own. It is a stepping stone to lighting heavier fuel.

Each step in the chain helps to light the next one.

Business depends on forging a chain of trust connecting you to your customers.

Forge a chain of trust through leaders who contact friends who contact friends.

The more you feed a fire, the more oxygen it requires. If fed too much, it runs out of oxygen or fuel.

If you take on too many customers, you overwhelm your investment. You lose customers due to poor delivery.


The three essentials for fire are heat, fuel, and oxygen. Survival is only possible in the balance of all three.

woman warming hands from fire's heat Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Your unique offering, customers, and investment must always remain proportional to one another.

Keeping these needs in equilibrium requires disciplined, constant adjustment. The closer to balance you maintain each of them, the more resilient your company becomes.

The more frequently you make correct adjustments, the easier each becomes.

Congratulations on lighting your fire!

Rise to the challenge of keeping it alight.

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