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Our Mentor Monday post today comes from Kwindla Kramer, a mentor with our LA program. 

Every startup company (and every startup founder) is unique and each startup journey follows its own path. It turns out, though, that many of the basic challenges we face, as founders, are pretty similar.

Over the past couple of years I have started to notice that every first-time founder I’m close to learns the same small handful of lessons early on. Thinking back, I realized that I climbed up that exact same learning curve, too. (And sometimes I learned way too slowly!)

Here are five “counterintuitive founder lessons” that seem to come up for everyone, regardless of company focus, type of product, or business model.

1. Nobody makes real progress on a startup until the startup is a full-time job.

It’s pretty common for me to get a phone call from a friend-of-a-friend, a founder with a “new” startup, and to hear that the founder has a full-time job at a big company, and that the startup isn’t really making any progress. Often, the startup actually isn’t all that new; the founder has been working on it, nights and weekends, for a year or more.

I always give the same advice: if you really want to do a startup, you’re going to need to quit your “day job” sooner rather than later.

This is scary, and hard advice to follow. It’s not necessarily easy to say why it’s true that you can’t make progress part-time. Empirically, though, the evidence is clear: I’ve never seen anyone I know make significant progress on their startup while they also still have a “real” job.

2. Don’t worry (early on) about competition.

Founding a company is pretty much the same thing as being obsessed with a product and a market. It’s natural to know a lot, and to obsess about, what other people are doing that’s similar. First-time founders usually worry a lot about competition. They don’t want to talk to other people about what their startup is doing, because they think competitive companies might learn something useful. They spend a lot of time thinking about complicated partnerships or specific product development plans that are motivated by a desire to outmaneuver competitors.

It turns out that it’s almost always a huge mistake to spend precious time and brain cycles thinking about how to “beat the competition.”

Startups fail for lots of small reasons, but mostly for two big reasons: they don’t make something that people are willing to pay for, or they don’t have a cost-effective way to tell people they exist.

So spend all your time thinking about those two things: product, and customer acquisition.

3. Tech startup success depends surprising little on technology.

I’m a founder with an engineering background, and I was slow to learn this lesson. For a long time I thought of a “technology startup” as a company that was particularly good at and focused on engineering. But it turns out that engineering is the fourth or fifth most important competency of a tech startup.

Startups first have to make something people are willing to pay money or attention for. Then they have to let people know about the thing they make. Then they have to get very good at “scaling” — growing and accelerating everything the company does. Technology helps with all of these activities. But, by the same token, all of them are fundamentally about something other than engineering itself.

If you love writing code or designing circuit boards, it’s worth knowing that starting a company is a very bad way to keep doing those things. Founders usually have to step out of engineering roles as soon as a company gets a little bit of traction so they can focus on helping the company sell stuff, and then scale.

4. Fire faster.

This is the hardest of these lessons to learn, for almost everyone. But it’s really important. Not everyone you hire will work out. And if you take too long to fire people who aren’t doing their jobs (and everyone takes too long to fire people, when climbing up the founder learning curve), you do real damage to your team and your company.

Firing people goes against almost all the (very good) instincts and values that founders have. Founders are optimists. Founders think problems are solvable. Founders believe that working hard and caring about what you do means that anyone can do pretty much anything. Founders tend to take responsibility for fixing things.

But it turns out that unproductive employees are amazingly, unbelievably toxic to the culture and happiness of a small team. As a founder, the most important resource you have is cash to make payroll. But the second most important resource is the happiness and alignment of the people who come to work with you every day.

You owe your team the best possible work environment you can figure out how to provide. That means you either have to fire people, when they aren’t working out, or you have to fire yourself so that someone else can make those decisions for your company.

5. At the beginning, almost all that matters is shipping quickly, then iterating.

Most founders, early on, take way, way too long to ship their product — to put what they are building in front of actual (and ideally, paying) users. When you’re obsessed with your product and have poured hours and hours into it, it’s hard to let go. You want it to be perfect. You know how much better it will be with just a little more work.

But this is exactly backwards. Products get better when people use them and tell you what you got right and got wrong. Nobody builds successful products in a vacuum.

This is such an important lesson that there are a lot of great founder quotes about it. Reid Hoffman: “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” Steve Jobs, even more succinctly: “Real artists ship.”

I’ve been part of the founding team at three companies and two non-profits. It’s addictive, and fun, and fulfilling. It’s also draining, and difficult, and frustrating. Having investors and board members who are experienced, accessible, and kind helps enormously. So does spending time with other founders and building relationships that allow you to talk honestly about what’s hard, and what you’ve learned. Being part of a startup is accelerator is great, because it gives you a network of both mentors and peers.

My third company just launched. We make video conferencing hardware designed for startups, and other small companies that do creative, fast-paced work. Check out what we’re doing and tell us what you think. Pluot — big-screen video conferencing for small teams — https://pluot.co

And let me know what you think about this post in the comments below. Or, I’m @kwindla on twitter, and kwindla@gmail.com, the old-fashioned way.


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Kwindla Hultman Kramer Kwindla Hultman Kramer
Kwin has been CTO and CEO of high-growth technology startups. His executive experience includes building engineering teams from scratch, scaling up startup management teams, fundraising, business development with Fortune 50 company partners, and strategic focus on product/market fit.



  • As advise for startups I disagree with your point on “3. Tech startup success depends surprising little on technology.”. Early days it is all about Product and Engineering. You must build something people want so you can sell it. Later, Distribution comes into the picture later. Until then everything else is noise. Furthermore, success is relative. What’s the measure.. IPO, acquihire, revenue.. etc.. All depends on the exit strategy. So in 2016, you better build something that’s 10x better or has some secret sauce to gain momentum.

  • Kathy Keating

    I agree with #3 (and I’m a technologist). We’ve just gone from concept through rapid growth (to stable revenue stream) on a short 10 months on an tech enabled platform. In this team we focused only on the tech required to prove and scale the business. During this time we pivoted quickly and built only MVP (viable and usable) for only the major pain points prohibiting us from proving the concept. We have a fully viable and stable revenue stream now on which to scale and grow the business. In this time I have watched other companies stay in stealth mode, launching nothing (focusing on getting the product and tech right). And they are 1+ years in. How can you know what to build if you aren’t using real customers to prove your hypothesis to be accurate? It’s all about customer experience and very little about the technology that enables it.

  • I disagree with #2 “Don’t Worry About Competition”- Although it is of little value to “obsess” about the competition, not understanding how potential customers view their purchasing alternatives is a mistake. Once you’ve determined your target market, you need to understand the factors that they will consider when making a purchasing decision. Validating the problems you will solve and the solution you will be providing is great, but it’s not enough. Potential buyers must ultimately choose to buy your solution over other alternatives if you are to gain traction.

  • Scott D. Witt

    Ignoring Your Competition = Death for Your Startup

    To survive and grow, your startup must Learn and Respond faster than your Customer’s other options.

    You can’t waste your time and money making the same mistakes or building a Me-Too Product that no one wants.

    You do this by studying other startups’ experiences to understand what works, and what doesn’t, for ALL dimensions of your product: Features, Prices, Promoting, and Selling.

    The Customer Chooses You, and your deep knowledge will enable you to show them why your startup is their best choice (see Jim’s note below)

    Run your own race, and do it with the confidence that comes from a deep knowledge about your Customers and your Competitors.

    Andy Grove was right: “Only the Paranoid Survive”
    (RIP Andy)

  • Bonaventure Barry

    All true, and it feels good to know that someone else went though the same process. I made one mistake you mention ” waited too long to ship” but I hope that mistake will not cost too much. Great reading.

  • Very well said Kwindla on all points and I would add if your the Founder/CEO cut your safety net first so the only way is through.