Insights from 50+ interviews with founders at the frontier

How do builders in crypto, AI, biotech, and climate tech get support from people they trust

I’m departing from the usual weekly digest format this week to share some hopefully helpful insights that we’ve collected from many of you as well as founders outside of Backdrop. But Demo Friday is happening as usual on Friday at 10am PST, and I’m also hosting a casual community call to jam on the insights below and the experiments we’re working on for any Backdrop members that want to join next week on Wednesday. 

Our team spends basically every waking hour thinking about how to help people build bold new things with the support of people they trust. We have a few spicy experiments of our own cooking up around that, and as part of that research I was lucky to interview over 50 founders in frontier spaces (crypto, AI, climate, biotech) about their biggest challenges and how they leverage people they trust to help them build. As part of paying it forward, I’m going to try and summarize a few of the learnings I found most interesting here. 

But before I get into the insights, I want to thank all of the Backdrop members that participated and helped connect me with a truly inspiring group of founders. Even interviewing 50+ people I hardly scratched the surface of how many people offered to help, and if that’s not a good sign that what we’re doing matters then please don’t tell me since it’s motivation that makes our team so happy to get out of bed and keep building every day. 

Insight 1: The frontier is the frontier

We focused on founders in frontier spaces in order to go deep on one persona and look across different industries for potential similarities or differences. And as we expected, what we found is that whether you’re building in crypto or AI or biotech, you share a lot of the same challenges. While I only talked to founders, I’m also confident these insights are fairly generalizable to builders in general:

  • Many founders (especially of early-stage companies) reported key challenges like “the ground is moving under my feet” or “the context in which we are building changes constantly.”

  • Frontier founders have an acute sense that there is no blueprint for what they are doing, and across the board people reported not putting too much weight into looking for best practices or published frameworks. The “good stuff” is in finding that person who has some experience that is relevant and having an honest and authentic conversation with them. Some founders accomplish that via a trusted advisor or peer, but many others don’t have those conversations often or at all. 

  • It’s hard to separate signal from noise. Interestingly, whether you’re “so hot right now” (AI) or were hotter last year (crypto) you have the same feeling that the key things you need to do (fundraise, grow, hire) are very noisy and unpredictable. Again, the answer seems to be in finding the people you can trust to give you high-signal insights. 

Key insight: If you’re creating something for founders or builders, consider “early-stage, frontier founders/builders” as a category with a lot of similar problems. 

Insight 2: Getting support is primarily a social problem

There are certain kinds of support that are zero sum, the most obvious of which is funding. But even when you double click on fundraising as a problem, it’s clear that getting the support of a network to make intros and vouch for you is the means to that end. And unlike funding, the amount of support you can get from your network is not zero sum:

  • Most founders have lots of people that want to support them. When I defined it as “people that want to support you, who could likely be very useful” the estimated numbers were ~50-150. Investors are of course one subset of that population for many founders, but the bigger group are non-investors: other founders, people you vibe with or have worked with in the past, etc. 

  • Of those 50-150, most people have only 2-10 people they actually feel comfortable reaching out to for help consistently. That’s why a lot of founders report posting to Twitter to get help, since that way they don’t have to ask people in their network directly. 

  • The biggest reason people don’t feel comfortable reaching out for help is because they don’t know what specific help they really need, and don’t want to waste people’s time. So it’s a two-sided matching problem: if they knew the help they need, and they knew who in their network has relevant expertise, they would be comfortable asking. 

  • Related to the above, most founders wish they could do more to help others in their network and feel it is important to do so, because those favors are returned.

Key insight: there is a lot of potential locked up in networks, especially for founders. The barrier to unlocking it is lowering the social friction of asking for help.

Insight 3: It’s lonely out there

This may seem like an obvious and less actionable insight (although I would disagree), but building something at the frontier is a great way to develop imposter syndrome and lose the energy you need to keep going. Energy and motivation are clearly scarce resources for frontier founders, and ones they feel are directly correlated to the quality of their work. There’s no silver bullet here, but a lot of the insights tie into the points above:

  • The simplest antidote to loss of motivation is having real, authentic conversations with advisors, users, or peers. When I asked founders which moment from the past months was most motivating to them, those conversations came up across the board. The other answers included shipping new things, seeing growth or getting other external validation, and hiring new team members. 

  • Despite the above, many of the founders I talked to expressed hesitation about conferences, accelerators, and communities that are designed to create those kinds of connections. A common hesitation is that they don’t have the time or money (or both) to invest in those things, and would prefer to stay focused on building. 

Key insight: despite what you might think from all of the confidence on Twitter, building something in frontier space is often lonely and confusing. The antidote is authentic conversations, but those are hard to come by. 

I hope this can be useful to you in what you’re building! There are tons more insights we got along the way that I’d be happy to share. On that note, we’ll host a community call next week to jam on these insights and some useful tactics we discovered for how founders navigate them. And if something in here resonated with you, we’d love to involve you in some of the experiments we’re working on at the moment. Reach out to me, or subscribe to this newsletter if you’re not already to get updates as we have them. 


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