Being an entrepreneur is scary, exciting, gratifying … so many emotions mixed into one. The same is true about being an immigrant.
Here are five ways my experience as an immigrant served as a foundation for launching a startup.
Jump Off the Cliff
It was 2003, I was 19 years old, and I had just arrived in the US from my native country Bulgaria ready for my freshman year at The College of Brockport in upstate New York. I was holding two suitcases containing the contents of my entire life. I only had my clothes and my memories — everything I would need to start fresh.
Nine years later, as a founder, I was again back to nothing and constantly reminded that 90 percent of startups fail. Layered on top of this stress, my Google safety net had vanished.
With the odds stacked against me, and terrified that the life I had built in America could evaporate in an instant, I knew I had to make my startup work.
Rely on Friends, Family & Fools
My scholarship covered tuition — but the rest was up to me. To attend university, I borrowed the complete savings of my parents, including their 401ks, and took gifts from extended family. I scraped together enough to cover room and board for my first year, roughly $5,000. Raising funding is a similar experience.
You have to rely on friends, family and fools to get enough seed funding for your first product or service launch. It’s a skill set that may feel awkward, but is essential to survive.
Become an Efficiency Machine
Shortly after starting school, I landed a job as the “smoothie guy” in the school cafeteria. It was the graveyard shift, from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., earning 50 cents per hour more than the day shift.
I worked 20 hours each week, the maximum allowed to work on campus as a full-time student, all while triple majoring in math, computer science and computational science. I had time only for working, studying, eating, and sleeping.
Between university and founding Leanplum (Seattle ’12), I worked at Google for five years. When I left, I knew I was giving up the security of a work visa and paycheck, both of which I’d come to heavily rely on.
In a way, it felt like I was 19 again, beginning from scratch with no resources. And when I started Leanplum, I was right back at it, coding, talking to customers, eating and sleeping.
Rely on Your Wit
As busy as I was at university, I was also the happiest I’d ever been. Why? I felt empowered to pursue my dreams with nothing but my vision — a belief I would need nearly a decade later as an entrepreneur.
The thing about entrepreneurs who are also immigrants is we’re relentlessly resourceful — the number one entrepreneurial characteristic.
In Bulgaria, there’s a folklore character named Hitar Petar, or Clever Peter, akin to Robin Hood. Clever Peter relies on his resourcefulness to succeed, and there are plenty of stories that showcase his wit.
His essence lives on in Bulgaria, a nation that may not be the most affluent, but one that is certainly resourceful. It’s this trait that has helped me flourish, both in school and in Silicon Valley.
Risk It All
Once you jump off that cliff, you can’t look back. As a student, I was thousands of miles from my family, and terrified of failure. At the end of my four years, I worked hard and graduated Summa Cum Laude. But standing there with my two suitcases that day, I didn’t know that’s how my time at university would play out.
A founder’s fears are the same. Five years after launching Leanplum, I’m proud to have built a company that is every bit as successful as I could have hoped.
We raised our Series C funding last October, continue to triple our revenue and employee growth each year, and work with the biggest brands in the world, like Tinder, Macy’s and Lyft.
It was my experience as an immigrant that made this all possible — an experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world.
Techstars is a Worldwide Network that helps entrepreneurs succeed. Check out the impact of the Techstars’ network over the past 10 years.
As the Asia Pacific region is growing into a global center for innovation, there’s an increasing challenge of how to offer the best resources for new startup communities. Oko Davaasuren, Techstars Regional Director in APAC, and Anurag Maloo, Techstars Regional Manager in APAC, answer questions on how Techstars is working to help inspire entrepreneurs in the region.
What is your vision for Techstars and building communities in Asia Pacific?
For some of you who don’t have a larger view of Techstars, this question comes up a lot as I’m traveling to different countries.
Techstars has three distinct parts to it. The first part is our startup programs, which includes Startup Weekend, Startup Week, and Startup Digest. These give access, education, and exposure to the communities or ecosystems.
The second part is what Techstars is mainly known for, which is our mentorship-driven accelerator programs. We’re running about 29 of these accelerators all around the world.
The third part of the business is the venture arm, which invests in startups that mainly go through our accelerator program and maybe some outside. Those are the three main pillars of Techstars as an organization.
We are running startup programs in about 28 countries out of 50 plus in Asia Pacific. We are running about 500 programs, including the bootcamps and other editions of our startup programs. We’re seeing about 10-20 percent growth year-by-year.
With that said, although we run thousands of Startup Weekends around the world, there are a lot of people we haven’t reached. You hear people who have been touched by these programs and know the impact of these programs in their communities. These people know how awesome it is.
The mission here is, “how can we share this awesome experience with as many people as possible?” We literally get to change people’s lives.
In the simplest terms, we want to enable and empower individuals in communities all around the world.
We want to continue doing that, because there’s so much still to go, especially in Asia. Economic growth is here and it’s the frontier of everything. This is where people need access, power, and exposure more than anywhere else.
Besides that, we’re not just talking about the individual impact programs, but as a collective of accelerators and the investing arm, we’re trying to help ecosystems in Asia Pacific to grow so that the true values of Techstars are materialized.
Entrepreneurs should be everywhere. You should be able to build your startup wherever you are from or where ever you are. But in order for that to happen, your ecosystem needs to grow and have all the right elements to be able to provide the environment for people to do that.
With the collective, our goal is to basically make Asia Pacific better than Silicon Valley or become an iteration of Silicon Valley by finding the strength of ecosystems to help it grow.
We have a lot of work to do.
Are you ready to help your community learn, network, and startup? Organize a Startup Weekend event in your area today!
There’s endless writing about how lonely it is to be an entrepreneur. How hard it is to be at the top. And how stressful it can be to become a founder, leader, entrepreneur.
Like anything in life, choosing to do something without a community of people to support you is a lonely path. And you can probably make the argument that you don’t learn the basics in life without teachers, peers, mentors, and cheerleaders. No Olympic athlete ever won a gold medal without both falling on their ass repeatedly and without good coaching.
So, why would an entrepreneur set out on their journey all alone?
There are a few books I’ve read that exemplify why other people are important in achieving your life goals – and why it’s important to take time to stop-look-listen as well as to share your experiences, hopes, and dreams. (More on those books later…)
In the throes of creating the most incredible, must-have solution to a big problem, sometimes we forget to ask others to join in the journey….we sometimes forget to surround ourselves with people smarter than us, and we forget that it is necessary to both give and take.
Personal Growth as a Bank Account
I like to look at the give and take component of personal growth as a bank account. Sometimes there’s debt and sometimes there’s a surplus. Being mindful of this concept is valuable. I like to keep my debt relatively low and I do this by making sure that I build a strong savings account so that when I really need help, that I don’t go into massive debt getting there.
How does this work? How do you build a big savings account?
Become a Mentor
Becoming a mentor builds equity versus cash in your savings account because every time you Give First as a mentor, there is a return to the person you mentor — as well as to yourself. You can be a mentor to a someone like you but less experienced (an entrepreneur who is more wet behind the ears), or to a person more senior than you (if you have a skill set that they do not have); to someone who is like you (a math major helping another math major); an alumna of a college helping a student in that college, etc. You can help a sibling, a neighbor, a classmate, a coworker. You get the idea. It’s never too early to mentor and to be mentored.
Find a Mentor for Yourself
Finding your own mentor is the corollary to becoming a mentor. There’s no order that these two need to come in – it’s a virtuous cycle. But the more that you allow yourself to openly share, the more that you receive. A mentor is someone whom you trust and respect. They can be explicit in the relationship – scheduled time, specifics asks and answers — or it can be less defined, a relationship that is based on simply wanting to grow by learning from another’s experiences.
Participate in Networking Events
Peers and people who have aligned interests are great ways to grow your network and yourself. I’m a big fan of openly sharing and engaging, of honesty and transparency, and of helping someone over rough patches that I’ve already learned how to navigate.
Networking events are also awesome ways to add another person to your personal network, find that new investor that you’ve been seeking, do some A/B testing on your messaging and, most basically, a change of scenery. It’s too easy to be too busy to make the time to change the scenery and engage with other people – making the effort and following through on the intent is important.
Join an Organization to Get Connected
If you are a part of a network like Techstars, really use the Techstars family. Take advantage of Connect (our private network for Techstars founders), meet with other founders, engage with your MD and others that are interesting to you, find new mentors and reach out to investors. What you reap will be at least proportional to what you sow.
I remember the point in my journey as an entrepreneur when I wanted to become a better CEO – and my intentional journey to do this. I joined Entrepreneur’s Organization (better known as EO) and benefited hugely from my forum. It was there that I expanded my network for life, I joined both my local board and the International Board, learned about a different type of governance, explored the world, and was exposed to cultural differences, went through the Birthing of Giants program, and further blew my mind up. I credit EO with a rapid growth of my understanding of the journey that I was on and my ability to be much more intentional about my path.
Just remember: you are not alone. Dive into the network around you and learn from your it. Get connected. Be a mentor and find a good one. Take control of your learning. Everything is a teachable moment if you let it become one.
Oh, and back to those few books that inspired me …
- Into Thin Air – such a lesson on the dangers of being singularly focused and not always allowing others to lead.
- The Boys in the Boat – an accidental book about team work; as a former rower, it was a huge validation for me but the overall principles and underpinnings are amazing.
- Lean In – I wasn’t a huge fan, at first. And then I decided it was a must read simply because it’s so available for anyone.
- When Genius Failed – failure is something that we all need to do.
- The Cult of Done – so many worthy principles in this basic manifesto.
At Techstars, you are not alone. Once you are part of the network, it’s Techstars for Life. Join us!
Entrepreneurship in Conflict Zones: the first report offering insight into the status-quo of entrepreneurship in Syria during conflict
To sum up the results of five years of work to build an effective entrepreneurial ecosystem in Syria, I have put together data from a study examining and researching hundreds of Syrian entrepreneurs and experts.
The report draws on data from a study examining the views and experiences over a period of twelve months of research, during which 268 interviews were conducted with Syrians entrepreneurs. The study also included an open discussion and series of interviews with entrepreneurs experts as well as insights from local startups.
Prior to the conflict, few steps had been taken to assist the Syrian entrepreneurial ecosystem, which had real potential for growth. However, after 2011, startups have faced numerous challenges that restricted that potential.
The protracted war in Syria has exacerbated the challenges facing entrepreneurs working to create their startups. These challenges include: insecurity and political instability, scarcity of financial support, access to market limitation, collapsing infrastructure, sanctions, and payment restrictions, increasing economic burdens, dwindling human skills, diminishing of the market size, unfriendly regulatory environment, and a dysfunctional entrepreneurship education.
Since 2013, a slight recovery in terms of startups supporting new ideas and seed-focused entrepreneurs has taken place, led by a new generation of the community. Currently, there are more than 30 community entrepreneurial events, and many organizations are actively working to support Syrian entrepreneurs.
The study also shows significant improvement in the contributions of female entrepreneurs, which make up 22.4 percent as a natural outcome of the new role played by many women as chief breadwinners of the family, while many of the men have been forced to either flee or engage in the armed conflict.
Additionally, the report offers alternatives and solutions that could be considered in trying to overcome the obstacles posed by this lingering conflict and recommends that multiple players inside and outside the country contribute to improving entrepreneurs’ positions, as everyone has a role to play in this process.
The key message of this study is that policymakers and startup communities should start to consider assisting entrepreneurs in their endeavors to create businesses that take into consideration the public benefit. With proper upfront support and policies that are fair and available to everyone, entrepreneurs can yield substantial social and economic dividends.
To dig deeper, read the full study here >>
Techstars helps entrepreneurs succeed.
We are a worldwide organization with people in our ecosystem in nearly every country around the world. We are dedicated to inclusion and diversity. There is no bias in who we work with and where we work.
We are simply about helping entrepreneurs succeed and creating the best worldwide entrepreneurial network.
Techstars fully supports diverse peoples of all backgrounds, religions, and nationalities.
Yesterday, the United States made changes in immigration policies that could make many people feel insecure, unsure and concerned about their future in and around engaging with the United States. While we have no control over these policies, we want you to know that Techstars remains an open and inclusive global family. The best that we can do is make sure that we are of service to those in our network who need guidance and support.
If you are a founder, mentor, investor, community leader or partner within the Techstars ecosystem and have concerns that we can help address, please reach out to us at email@example.com and we will work directly with you on your concerns.
Michael is a Ngarrindjeri Monaro man from Southern NSW, who is a judge and Keynote speaker at Australia’s First Indigenous Startup Weekend.
Michael’s business is called Message Stick, which is a unique business in that it is owned by Aboriginal Australians. The company was started in 2003 to show that Aboriginal Australians can own and manage a services business that engages with large corporations and Government agencies. The business does not seek any sponsorship, donations or social grants whatsoever. They seek only the opportunity to prove themselves and to be treated as worthy business partners.
Michael’s future is aimed at advocating the need for Australian society (particularly the private sector and our Governments) to embrace, and support, the challenge Indigenous people face when his people begin the journey towards economic independence.
His Message Stick business model is aimed at proving that Indigenous and non-indigenous people can work together to achieve generic economic results – yet still fully support, and participate in, community growth.
Today’s post comes from Nishika de Rosairo, CEO, Creative Director, and founder of dE ROSAIRO. Before becoming an entrepreneur, Nishika built a corporate career with Deloitte, Cisco, and Salesforce. In addition to leading her business, Nishika serves on several boards including Startup Women, Upward, and the Center for International Business Education and Research.
“Aren’t you scared?”
“What will you do if you fail?”
“You have no experience in the industry, how will you succeed?”
“Don’t worry, you can always go back to Corporate America”
… and so the questions and comments flooded in…
What surprised me the most was that these questions and comments were being dished out from a combination of people who knew me very well, and also from those who didn’t know me at all.
I soon started to realize that non-entrepreneurs were projecting their own anxieties of starting a business onto me.
So the real question became:
How do you listen to the parts that matter, and turn off the parts that don’t?
An Entrepreneur is Born
For me, entrepreneurship has always felt very real. I was still a teenager when I came to the realization that life would be boring if everyone succumbed to practices and principles denoting linear patterns of thinking and execution, simply because they made life easy to explain and easy to understand.
My version of happiness started to emerge around the same time when I turned to mentors such as Sir Richard Branson and Anthony Robbins. They taught me that happiness was a state of mind, achieved through a non-linear journey of strategy, discovery, and perspective: the perfect mindset for an entrepreneur.
I grew up with an adventurous spirit, and by the time I reached my 30s, I was living on my fourth continent, had traveled to over 40 countries, and my career in the corporate world was ripe and flourishing. Over my 10 years in Corporate America, I had the incredible opportunity of learning a repertoire of deep knowledge and expertise from the best of the best: Deloitte Consulting, Salesforce, Apple, Levi, Cisco, Chevron, and many others.
Even still, I wanted more.
I decided it was time to turn in the stability of a steady paycheck for something that was much more adventurous and impactful.
I wanted to change the world, one design at a time.
Building a Business
Finally, my business – dE ROSAIRO (pronounced ‘day ro-zai-ro’) — was born: it was a childhood dream coupled with a deep desire to influence the world through the inherent psychology behind the clothes we wear.
I spent 10 months writing my business plan and building the business on nights and weekends, all while still employed full time at Salesforce. At the end of that time, I had my first collection of sketches sitting on hangers in a sales showroom in Los Angeles. I built dE ROSAIRO on the founding principle of ‘Look Feel Lead’, which translates into — how you Look, is how you Feel, is how you Lead. The idea being that how we dress influences how we feel, and on the flipside, how we feel influences how we dress.
No matter how many people have shared their years of wisdom with me, not one person, or any one experience, could have truly prepared me for the broad depth and range of mental and physical strength it takes to be an entrepreneur.
Doubt is Part of the Journey
There are days I have wanted to pull my hair out, and then there are days that I know I am doing exactly what I should be. I would be lying if I didn’t admit the rough days.
But the truth is: doubt is a part of the journey, as it continues to provide me with an opportunity to question even my most basic set of assumptions. Healthy businesses cannot be built on complacency and self-assurance.
Mistakes will be made, money will be lost, and through it all, the question that we will need to keep answering is – am I still aligned with my vision?
Why does alignment matter? It matters for two key reasons:
- When we launch a business, we should aim to build a foundation that aligns with our personal set of values. We need to ask ourselves: what matters to me? How do I want to affect the lives of others? What do I want my legacy to be?
- Doing ‘good business’ is no longer the icing on the cake; in today’s world it is a basic expectation. This means we each have a role to play.
Through this journey, what I’ve come to discover is: there is no greater measure of self-fulfillment than when profit, individual values, and ‘good business’ intersect.
So when you’re on the brink of YOUR entrepreneurial journey, and when people ask you:
“Aren’t you scared?”
“What will you do if you fail?”
“You have no experience in the industry, how will you succeed?”
Tell them that you would rather give it your best shot than regret not trying.
Tell them that you desire transformative growth in your life that a steady paycheck cannot provide.
Tell them that changing the world is worth the calculated gamble.
We spend a lot of time talking to Techstars founders about focus. We talk a lot about saying ‘no’ to things that don’t matter. We talk a lot about not chasing too many things at once. We try to give founders tools for deciding what’s important. We try to give them a framework for how to get things done.
For me personally, it boils down to three things – my next daily task, my next milestone and my big goal. Let’s call them GMT. Here is what they look like right now:
1. My next task is to send semi-weekly update emails to Techstars mentors. This is something that I do every other weekend during the Techstars program to keep the mentors posted on what’s going on in the program at large.
2. My next milestone is to have a great Demo Day. Not only are Demo Days the culmination of the Techstars program, but they are also significant milestones for me as a Managing Director at Techstars. Demo Days are the stepping stones to my bigger goal.
3. My next big goal is to become great at my job, to become a great investor in New York City. My vision is to help founders create great, transformational, lasting businesses in NYC, have fun along the way, and make a lot of money.
Being really clear about your next big goal, next milestone, and next daily task helps you keep your head straight.
If someone asks you what they are for you, and you don’t know, that’s not great. It likely means you don’t have clarity, and may not be working on things that are important.
Pick your goal first, and then work backwards from the goal while measuring progress along the way.
Work Backwards from the Goal
In my case, the goal is to become a great investor. To do that, I need to keep finding and investing in great startups. The way I do it is to fund them in batches and run them through Techstars program. To have Demo Days as milestones is natural, because the Demo Days are the culmination of the program and the start of the fundraising for most companies.
What makes for a great Demo Day? A bunch of things, but first and foremost, great companies (check out Techstars NYC Winter 2015 class).
Techstars is a mentorship-driven accelerator. We connect each company with a group of great mentors who work with them during the program to help accelerate the business.
The semi-weekly mentor email is just one small task on my list to make sure mentors and the companies are connected. It is a small but important task that is a step towards a great Demo Day.
The daily tasks add up to a milestone, and the milestones add up to the goal.
GMT: One Goal, One Milestone, One Task
If you can stick with the system, it works.
First, you set your goal, and figure out the milestones. Then you are down to the tasks, and it actually gets harder, because there are a bunch of tasks you need to do over time to get to a milestone.
On any given day, I try to be very clear about the single most important task I need to get done. If it’s not in my head, I don’t think I am focused enough. I then go to my to-do list and look through it to get back into the groove.
If you always have your top task in your head, you know exactly where you are going and why.
It’s okay for some days to be muddy and disorganized, but most days need to be pretty clear.
What works for me is a weekly routine. I know what I need to do on Monday, on Tuesday, and all other days of the week. For example, I know that every other Sunday, I send mentor updates. Having a routine really helps me stay organized and keep executing.
The routines can change from month to month, but I use the calendar to chunk my times during the week and that helps me set a rhythm. And that, in turn, helps me focus, prioritize, and know what my next task is.
Don’t Do Stuff that Doesn’t Matter
When you have clarity about your goal and milestones, you also have clarity about what doesn’t matter.
Prioritizing and deciding becomes a lot easier. That’s why for me, if something doesn’t contribute directly to having a great Demo Day, I won’t prioritize it. For example, a lot people want to meet with me, but I can’t take a ton of these meetings before the Demo Day. I am busy helping the companies. So, I explain it to people and ask them to follow up with me after Demo Day.
Also, I have a bunch of tasks and projects related to broader Techstars ecosystem that I will get to after the Demo Day. I simply don’t have the time to do them, and they are not included in my next milestone. This system of Action and Idea lists is helpful for staying organized.
Use KPIs to Measure Progress to the Milestone
I use KPIs and data to measure progress towards the milestone. Using numbers to measure progress is important, because otherwise you can’t tell if you are getting closer to the milestone.
One of the ways that investors, myself included, measure progress is by looking at the value of their portfolio. It is difficult to do for early-stage companies, and by no means is this an exact science.
Still, as long as you have some sort of consistent measurement, it works. For example, I know that the 2014 batch of Techstars NYC companies have raised over 20MM in funding, and I know that this stacks up pretty well historically against other NYC and Techstars classes. While this does not mean that I am becoming great at being an investor, a lack of financing of the companies would imply that I am not doing well.
I also use other KPIs to help me check that I am heading in the right direction. For example, we ask the founders during the program and afterwards to rate my performance. High ratings mean that founders are happy with our help. When they graduate, this would lead to a positive word of mouth, and they will recommend the program to other founders, and that would help me invest in more great companies.
Apply This to You and Your Startup
How can you apply this to you and your startup? Actually, this system works equally well for individuals and startups.
For a startup, you need to start with your Vision. What does the world look like according to you? What does the world look like when you are a successful business?
The Vision leads to the Milestones. What do you need to achieve the Vision? How do you get there? For most startups, the first few milestones are about traction and funding. Typically, the first milestone is to prove that your product is needed, to prove that there is a demand, and to get early customers.
The second milestone is typically funding. Once you’ve proven that your idea has potential, it is easier to raise funding.
You set KPIs and drive to the milestone. Build the product customers want. Do things fast, have hypotheses, test stuff, iterate, be organized and chaotic all at the same time. But at any moment, be clear about your next task – what are you working on and why? What milestone are you trying to hit? What is your big goal?
So let’s try this out.
Do you know what your goal, milestone and next task are? Please share it with us.
This was originally posted on Alex’s blog.
Latin America has always been a fascinating region to me. Its cultural and geographic diversity make it one of the most interesting in the world, and those things that most capture my attention are their ability to adapt to changes and the infinite imagination they have to overcome adversity.
It is no surprise, then, that it is one of the most enterprising regions and its ecosystem of startups is one of the most dynamic and with the highest potential on the planet. Several technology companies have emerged in the region in recent years, and many of them have been consolidated in markets which, in principle are on the outside, like the American one.
Latin America is facing an historic opportunity to generate wealth and employment through entrepreneurship, relying on its entrepreneur DNA to generate new businesses, attracting foreign startups who seek to base their operations in the region in search of new users. Harnessing this potential requires governments to be able to articulate smart public policies focused on the needs and concerns of Latino entrepreneurs, fostering an innovative approach to solving local problems.
With these problems in mind, Techstars, with the support of Google, have carried out a process of discussion with entrepreneurs and industry benchmark agents about the five pillars that we believe are required to build thriving communities of entrepreneurship in the region, including the creation of public policies. During 2015, we organized discussion workshops in nine cities in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru and the Dominican Republic to share concerns, identify success stories, and think of solutions that strengthen the ecosystem of startups based on culture, density, capital, talent and regulatory environment.
Among the most interesting results we have detected are the need to generate more women entrepreneurs by promoting the study of technological careers from an early age in this demographic, as well as working to change the sometimes inaccurate perception within the region on venturing and failing as part of the learning process. From a regulatory point of view, the most discussed topics were on how to create modern and harmonized legislation between different countries in the region that could simplify the processes of generation and closure of companies, limit the liability of intermediaries for content generated by its users, and promote the availability of capital. Most surprising, however, we found dozens of examples of successful initiatives and models in the region and that can be replicated and used as a reference by other countries.
These, among other conclusions and recommendations are documented in the report “Fostering the Startup Ecosystem in Latin America”, which we proudly present this week at the Global Entrepreneurship Congress in Medellin, Colombia, to world leaders. This paper is available for free at the link below. We trust this process is just the first step towards greater involvement of entrepreneurs in building tools and policies that affect them directly, and we will continue to have more instances of discussion and community participation.
We believe the development of the startup ecosystem should be based on greater public-private collaboration, so that all the actors that comprise it, directly or indirectly, reap the benefits of entrepreneurship.
Our Mentor Monday post today comes from Kwindla Kramer, a mentor with the Cedars-Sinai Accelerator, Powered by Techstars.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, the old-fashioned way.