I sometimes get asked what is the best way to approach certain situations when starting a startup. A few days ago, I was talking with a good friend of mine whose brother has been thinking of forming his own startup. The conversation naturally turned around to my own experiences in starting a business.
One of the questions was “is it better to start with a tech co-founder or outsource the initial development?”. A simple doubt perhaps, but one that troubled me, as do all questions about the ‘best’ way to do something in a startup.
The fact is, there is no right answer. I’m sure there have been as many success stories as failures for both approaches. You could start working with a partner with brilliant credentials and clash 6 months down the line. You may find an inexpensive, but qualified developer that fails you when the time comes to move on to a new round of work, because he just committed to a new client.
I am not trying to tell you how to do development works. I am interested in telling you more about embracing uncertainty.
There is no ‘right’ way to do things.
Starting a business can be a daunting task. All you have is an idea, no contacts, and little experience in how to run a startup.
I sometimes like to contrast entrepreneurship with how you build a bridge. Building a bridge is a complex task, but it’s one that can be planned precisely. You examine the geography between two points. You create architectural plans based on the laws of physics and mechanics. You get precise measurements on the amount of material you will need. Finally you start building according to strict construction rules and best practices. Well, this is nothing like how starting a business feels.
Starting a business is like taking a journey into the unknown.
You kind of know where you want to end up, but you have no idea how to get there.
You set off in one direction for a while. Then talk to few people and change to a different plan . Re-evaluate your next moves at the end of each day, figuring out different ways to get to your next launch. Until you’re either where you were planning to be or have decided along the way to reach a completely different end-point. This journey will not be the same for everybody.
What the right decision is at each point will depend on you, the environment around you and the business you are trying to build.
One of the things that annoys me, is this new tendency of turning entrepreneurship into an ‘industry’. Structured ‘programs’, ‘models’, and an entire new genre of ‘entrepreneurship literature’ to help founders. Most of these are sponsored or created by people who’ve never built a successful business in their lives.
I’ve talked with people who religiously read books by successful entrepreneurs. They believe these will help them figure out common characteristics of success to emulate.
In reality each of these successful entrepreneurs are completely different to each other. They became successful in completely different contexts than what the reader finds himself in. We may ‘read’ about the life of Richard Branson. Yet each one of us has a different personality, network, skill-set, and live in different areas. So why should we expect to become successful in the same way?
The journey of a successful startup based in California with an ex-Googler as a co-founder will not be the same as of a startup founded in Poland by somebody who just quit their job in an accounting firm.
My advice is to constantly look for business and technical knowledge needed for your industry. Expose yourself to new experiences and always try to expand your network of contacts. Don’t try to find templates of success. Discover means to build the ability to make the right decisions for welcoming changes.
Realise that you may need to change course ‘a lot of times’. Embrace changes. Especially at the start of your journey, don’t commit yourself to a specific long term path.
In entrepreneurship, you move from point A to point B, but your path is anything but a straight line.
You will often need to change the ways you work. Change the product you’re trying to build. Change your team. And sometimes also just change everything. You may find out that you fail many times and have to completely rethink how you work. If you are willing to change and gain the knowledge to realise when a change is needed, then you will go ‘somewhere’ if you stick to it long enough.
There’s a common case study taught in business schools around the world about the entry of Honda motorcycles into the US market.
When Honda entered the US market, it initially focused on marketing their large motorcycles. However, they could not find the hoped popularity. What they found instead was that the scooters with which their salesmen travelled around the country attracted a lot of positive reactions. It was eventually with these that they managed to penetrate the market.
Whether the truth or an urban myth, the story points to a valuable lesson. It’s often not how good your plans are that will make you successful, but random and unexpected events, and your ability to change.
Flexibility is the one key advantage that early stage startups have over larger companies.
Changing directions for a massive corporation can sometimes cost millions. When it’s you and your co-founder, change can happen in a single afternoon, with little or no cost. So why would you ever want to ignore the one huge advantage you have over larger and more established competitors?
What’s my advice then to whether start with a technical co-founder or to outsource development work? It’s that it doesn’t really matter!
The best thing is finding someone who is able to do an initial round of development work. Agree to no more than a couple of weeks initially. Just go for it. See what you learn from the experience. At the end of this period, see where you are and what you want to do next.
Maybe you’ll realise that the technical side of things is just too complicated for you, and you need to move to a different industry. Maybe everything works fine. You’ll like the person you’ve worked with, they like you, you do a few more rounds of work, and a few successful months down the line you ask them to join in as a partner. Maybe that never happens, and you go through 5 different developers before you find the one that best works for you. Maybe a few months down the line, you need to get a part time job to earn some extra money to get in the business. Maybe while working part-time, you come up with a new way to pivot and enter a completely new market which is the one that will turn you into a millionaire.
Who knows? Whatever way you thought you would be successful with when you started, will have changed completely a few weeks, a few months, a few years down the line. You just need to be able to adapt to the change when it comes.
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