It's been over a year now since my co-founder and I came together and started working on our startup. I realise now that I had many pre-conceived notions about what it meant to be a "business owner", "founder" and even more so "entrepreneur." I had this vision of a team of professionals that knew exactly what they were doing at any given moment. I now know this doesn't exist. There's never a "right time" to get started on your own idea. And, more importantly, you don't know how much you don't know until you get started.
Here are the five things I've learnt over the last year since becoming a startup founder
- You Will Learn So Much by Doing 📖
Sometimes there is real value in being a new entrant. In an established business, you are shown how to do things, but as a founder all you can do is research and ask people until you find the answer. There's often no "right way" and that leaves a lot of scope for discovery.
You can spend hours of your day researching, watching videos and strategising to find the answer. There's always more than one way to something and everyday brings different problems to solve. There's something liberating about an unencumbered mind that can ask fundamental questions, see new patterns and new ways of doing things.
The role of "founder" is so broad that everyone brings something completely unique to the role. As soon as I started speaking to other founders, I realised how everyone had their own strengths and limitations. It's more about collaborating, finding community and partnerships where you have gaps in your understanding, than knowing exactly what to do at every given point. There's something so liberating in that.
2. Having a Co-Founder Makes Things a Lot Easier 👥
A problem shared is a problem halved. I didn't come to appreciate this saying until founding a startup. Having someone to bounce ideas off of and someone to share the intense highs and lows is truly invaluable. Friends and family won't get understand and how living through the daily uncertainties truly feels.
More importantly, no one has all of the skills needed to come up with an idea, build it and sell it to users, so spreading those skills between several people is crucial to getting to launch. Let alone beyond that milestone. As stated in Entrepreneur, "the number of details and intricacies will be orders of magnitude greater than your wildest expectations -- and the only person that will understand them like you, when you need help the most, is a co-founder."
Convincing someone else to dedicate their time, skills and potentially money to work towards creating something great, is excellent practice before selling your vision to investors and customers. Having a co-founder mitigates the risk external investors are taking, as really they're investing in the team above all else. The vision and product will no doubt change, but your ability to deliver a solution and bring others along may not.
3. Building a Network is Crucial 🤝
Now I used to always cringe when I'd hear things like "your network is your net worth", but more and more I'm realising the truth of that sentiment. Building a network of support through peers and the surrounding business community is crucial to the success or failure of your business.
By going to events (physical and virtual), networking and participating in accelerators, you can find peers or mentors that can act as a sounding-board. I'm amazed by how much I've learnt from other founders I've met from the incubators or accelerators I've been part of. Mentors are often industry leaders, so the connections and opportunities they can offer you allow you to skip ahead of your competitors.
Obviously networking comes at a cost. The time you spend meeting people could be spent working on your business, so it's crucial to make a plan and determine what you're looking for from the networking you do. Is it visibility? Are you looking for partnerships? Is it investors you are after? Then identify the events that will help you get to that next stage and have a maximum and minimum you attend each month.
4. Burnout is Real 🆘
I have to admit that I didn't really know what burnout was until I became a founder. According to Mayo Clinic burnout is "a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity." Long term this can have severe consequences for mental and physical health and once you reach a certain point, your body simply says "STOP."
Joel Gascoigne, CEO & Founder of Buffer (an application to manage social media accounts) recounted his own experiences with burnout after needing to take six weeks off. In his thought-provoking article Gascoigne outlines how the toll of taking Buffer through a period of strategic change caused him to completely crash. The adrenaline had been masking his mental and physical exhaustion and he states:
"I lost motivation. I just didn’t care. I knew I cared deeply, but I had nothing left. I couldn’t get up in the morning. I felt very sensitive and emotional. It was like anything could set me off, and make me well up. I cried a lot, by myself and with people close to me."
We are only just beginning to understand the true cost of overworking. Startups often don't work typical hours and this is compounded by the promotion of "hustle culture" online, which creates a certain peer pressure to put in more work than is often healthy. This is even more pronounced for startup founders. It's important to catch yourself when you have consistently been doing too many hours of work and take a break.
5. Don't Split Your Company's Equity Equally 📈
In the early days of startup life, there's no money to pay yourselves a market salary (or any salary at all), there's no product and really the only way of motivating yourselves is sheer belief in the idea. The worst thing to do at this point is to go in 50/50 or another equal equity split with co-founders.
Let's look at an example. Three former colleagues come together to work on an idea that they believe to be the next big thing. Within a week, co-founder 1 so enthralled by the opportunity quits their job to work full-time, co-founder 2 is offered a fancy new job somewhere else and, finally co-founder 3 is working part-time trying to do both. The dynamics of a startup founding team can change so much day-to-day, so why is this not reflected in the equity conversation?
"the equity question, more than any other, may strangle a young company before it can even get started. And that’s a damn good thing." (Dan Shapiro: GeekWire)
It's important to get to these difficult conversations early on: before the product, before launch and definitely before customers. Create an equity split that reflects the nuances of early stage life and can change as the work changes.
6. There's Always More Than You Think 💫
- Forbes: Entrepreneurs Thrive on the Learning Curve: https://www.forbes.com/sites/martinzwilling/2014/10/28/entrepreneurs-thrive-on-the-learning-curve/?sh=5dc31f9930ad
- CNBC: What Reid Hoffman Wants in a Founder: https://www.notion.so/5-Things-I-ve-Learnt-Since-Becoming-a-Startup-Founder-27c04fb3ce2941658fdbca96177dd627#d1cd2bc5497a41f697eda282f3bce374
- LinkedIn: Notes From the Startup Learning Curve: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/notes-from-startup-learning-curve-bastiaan-janmaat/
- Medium: The Co-founder Relationship and Why It's So Important: https://medium.com/@DFJvc/the-co-founder-relationship-and-why-its-so-important-398262da88bf
- Thinking of Going Solo? 7 Reasons You Need a Co-founder: https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/239945
- ULP: 11 Reasons Why Networking is Essential for Any Startup: https://www.universitylabpartners.org/blog/networking-essential-for-startup
- TechEU: Making connections: A guide to networking for new entrepreneurs and early-stage startups: https://tech.eu/features/4376/networking-early-stage-startups-entrepreneurs/
- Karl Hughes: Startup Working Hours: Burnout, Pacing and Hustle Culture: https://www.karllhughes.com/posts/working-hours
- Joel Gascoigne (Buffer): My Experience with Burnout as a Startup Founder https://buffer.com/resources/burnout/
- Geekwire: The Only Wrong Answer is 50/50: https://www.geekwire.com/2011/wrong-answer-5050-calculating-cofounder-equity-split/