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Lessons From a Recovering Founder

It's never too soon to recall what's important

“Your battles inspired me - not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won behind your forehead.” ~ James Joyce

I recently left my startup in the capable hands of my cofounder. Being a founder has been one of the most exhilarating rollercoasters I’ve been on, and I’m incredibly proud of everything that my startup, SpruceID, has achieved to date. There are a few pieces of advice I think are pretty important to share with anyone else beginning the same journey. 

Your First Job Is Having an Idea and Conviction

It’s an easy exercise to think about market opportunities across an infinite amount of verticals - even down to something extremely mundane but important like modernizing the carwashing industry; or entirely ambitious like reinventing the modern web browser from the ground up. 

Your job is to narrow that primordial soup of concepts and hypothetical scenarios into something that can make enough impact to build a sustainable business. Y Combinator has a great motto: “make something people want,” because it can’t just be about what you want.  

Quite often, building what you want as a founder creates a great trap. You may think you have a great idea for a product or business and are solving some great problem, but if you cannot validate that idea outside your personal bubble, you’re in for a rough time.

Delusions of Grandeur

You can’t just have an idea - you need to validate it. Either you’re already an expert in the area you’re considering going into because you’ve personally faced this problem and know others do, or you’re preparing for a boatload of customer development. Remember: useful for you doesn’t necessarily mean it’s useful for anyone else

Also, don’t bias the people you’re talking to – they rarely tell the truth when this happens. If you tell a friend or family member about your great vision, they’ll likely tell you “that’s great” to support you, or not hurt your feelings if they think it’s an awful idea. If you ask more about problems they encounter when doing something related to your idea (without specifically pushing a solution), you will likely get closer to the truth. 

When you’re confident this problem is confirmed, your next goal is to tackle the most potent individual issue identified. This typically comes as an MVP that looks terrible but provides immediate value. After you do this, it’s just continual iteration.

It’s pretty fun to apply your solution to everything under the sun while neglecting an initial problem or market that needs it. As easy as it may be, don’t get caught up in this – you will burn yourself out quite quickly. 

Your Second Job Is to Articulate Your Mission and Inspire People

Great – you’ve identified a problem, have a way of solving it, and have enough people interested in your MVP. 

One of a founder's many jobs is articulating this vision and mission to a broader audience outside of your immediate circles. Specifically, I like to reference Wired’s series of explaining what may seem like a simple concept across five difficulty levels as an exercise to employ.

An example of what not to do

Externally, you must break it down in the simplest form possible, preferably within a phrase or sentence. One way of doing this could be using an existing company as a frame of reference in a comparison (e.g. a hypothetical service that offers transportation for your pet to daycare “It’s like Uber for Dogs”). 

After breaking it down, you must convince an initial group of builders to believe in what you’re doing to bring your vision to life. This becomes your founding team who have to be ride-or-die throughout the process. The core adage to think about here is “hire missionaries, not mercenaries,” about the types of people you should work with.

You want people just as excited about what you’re doing in the early days, especially given the trials and tribulations you might go through to bring your wacky idea to life. However, the most critical next step is what you do after hiring, which is making sure to lead with not just clarity and direction, but empathy as well. You’ve brought some people onto this crazy ride, and you must be the ever-leading optimist at an organization.  

This optimism can’t be blind – it has to be balanced with organizational transparency, integrity, and the ability to listen to the team you’re leading.

Your Third Job Is to Take Action and Accountability

There are two types of decisions that you’re trusted to make as a founder: measured actions or gut reactions.

It’s easy to take your time for measured actions. These are your day to week to month decisions that impact the organization at large, and span everything from hiring, to product, to marketing. These actions typically fall under some internally defined process where you set up measurable objectives and milestones, and start to formulate and take action on how to achieve them.

The easiest way to gain internal trust on these types of decisions is through consistency. The more predictable these happen from a founder, the more comfortable a team is in supporting these actions and helping you see them to fruition. However, you don’t always have the time to take a measured action. The universe doesn’t often give you the luxury of taking your time, measuring every possible outcome, and taking action based on a plan you may have made.

Gut reactions are acceptable in a few scenarios based on a founder’s foresight. It’s important that a team trust that founder to align on scenarios where a gut reaction is warranted. Typically, gut reactions are necessary when it comes to decisions that have a very short window of response, such as security issues, crisis PR, and a time-sensitive market development. However, by this point, you should have a history of consistency with measured actions so your team trusts your intuition in these scenarios. 

Just know that you are responsible for the outcomes stemming from these actions. It’s not a team effort unless your team is making decisions on behalf of the company. If it’s a delivery failure, that’s one thing and still involves founder accountability – but if it’s a vision or directional failure, that’s mostly on you, not your team.

Finally, Your Last Job Is to Survive

Everyone talks about the success of startups and less so about their survival when times aren’t great. The clock is ticking with every decision made, and with each moment that passes, there’s less capital to work with. You will be making some of the hardest decisions of your life while you operate a business, and it will include managing your burn rate. 

There will be times when your product doesn’t take off, there aren’t favorable conditions in the market, or you have a year left of runway and need to turn that into two years. It will require making tough decisions, whether cutting certain parts of your product or your team. 

Timing is one of the major killers of startups. If your idea is too early to take off in a significant way and see success in the market, you might need to withstand the storm until then. You might need to change your immediate product direction to serve the market while preparing your greater vision for when the time comes. Your goal is to make it until that time comes by cutting any corner you can and keeping the same conviction mentioned earlier

If there’s one thing to remember throughout all of this - remember that you’re not alone. 

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