“It’s time to pack, we need to go”
Sadly looking at each other, my co-founder and I tidied up our desks and left the co-working space that hosted us for three months. After one year and a half trying, we were moving on, slowly, but we were. We didn’t say it out loud. We were sad. I still thought we might have had some luck in the last sprint and raise some funds. I still believed we could have made it, but I was scared. Scared to withdraw from the battle too early. Scared to go back to a normal job. Scared to tell people I failed. Scared about what others might have thought. I was terrified, telling the truth. We were going to work from home. We terminated all external collaborations. We needed some money to start paying off the bills, so we also started looking for jobs. That was it, the end of the dream.
It took me another year and a half to collect my thoughts after that moment. The first 3-6 months I was angry. The other 6-9 months I lived in a denial state, trying to focus on other things. Finally, I accepted the fact that if we failed, it was mainly because of me. I shouldn’t be that hard on myself, I know. Of course, it was not only because of me. Still, I was the “captain” and when the boat sinks, someone has to take the responsibility. But I didn’t. I should have done this long ago.
It’s not that easy and I am definitely not at the end of that road. I still have to learn a lot about myself. I had to take a hard look at myself and don’t be ashamed of the mistakes I have made. We all make mistakes after all. My mistakes caused me to have some financial problems, lose more hair (although if you know me you wouldn’t see that much difference), sleep way less than what I was used to, prefer the couch to anything else, eat randomly and not necessarily well. Thank God I am not that old. All these things didn’t affect me in a dramatic way. Now I am in a better position, physically and mentally.
My experience is not special or different from any other startup founder who failed. It’s not that exciting either. We didn’t raise millions, grew exponentially and then fired everyone. My story is simple. It’s an experience that taught me something valuable about myself and something to share with other startup founders.
Why Are You Chasing The Dream?
I have been thinking about starting my own business for a long time. Different ideas popped up in my head at different times. I was reading and researching for hours several topics of interest. Talking with friends and testing these ideas to understand what made sense.
Then frustration kicked in. I found myself in a job I didn’t like anymore. I was “wasting” my time doing something that was not relevant to me with people I didn’t necessarily think were better than me. It was time to move on.
My partner at the time, companion of different adventures, was probably more worried than what I was at the time. One day I called her up in the middle of the day and told her “I quit! I am out of here!” I can only guess what she might have thought, but I was sure that my decision was right. I had a co-founder. I had a quite interesting idea. I saw the pieces of the puzzle coming together. What I didn’t see (or perhaps I didn’t want to see) was the reason behind my decision: frustration.
Frustration was motivating one of the biggest steps in my life. Funnily enough, my co-founder was as well in a similar situation. We were both moved by a sense of dissatisfaction with the working environment. We wanted to try something different.
Understand Your Driving Motivation Before Making The Jump!
Did we want to necessarily build a business for life or did we simply want to have a different environment to work in? Looking back, I am still unsure about the reason that drove us in building our startup dream. I only know that at the time we felt we could make it and if we didn’t, well f@$k it, at least we tried!
Focusing On The Wrong Things
It was on. We were playing the game. I was excited to be on the boat and ride the wild waves of entrepreneurship. I literally had no idea of what to do though. Did we need a product before raising money? Did we need a website before chasing users? Did we have to validate the idea before quitting our jobs? No one gave me an “entrepreneurship manual”. I tried. I made mistakes. I learned.
The first few weeks were chaotic. We had to choose a name (quite an important thing at the time and we lost about 2 weeks on it). We had to structure how we wanted the website and the user flow. We needed a design, a cool design. We needed some money. I was talking with our primary target users, telling them what we were envisioning. What our startup dream was and why we were doing it. I was pitching my product and users were reacting positively.
Would they use it? Yes!
Did they like the killer (and expensive) design we had? Yes!
Did they see our dream? Yes!
Should have I wasted so much time talking with them? No!
Our primary target users were musicians. One thing I didn’t take in consideration was that musicians need money. Always, no matter what! Of course they liked our idea and they believed in our dream. We wanted to change the way they were not getting paid for gigs. Hell they liked us. Looking back now, I shouldn’t have talked with the supply side of the business we were building. I should have talked with the average Joe who was going to buy our supply.
Identify the correct target user and understand their needs, before feeding them with your solution!
Another thing I also regret of doing at the time was to look desperately for money.
We literally applied to every single accelerator program that had an application window open at the time. We had no real connections in the VC world. I had no “user manual” to follow. That seemed the most plausible thing to do. Instead of building a product, we were waiting for the money to flow in.
Once we sealed the deal with one accelerator, we decided to take the next step and start building a product.
If You Are Worried About The Money, Startups Are Not For You!
Money is important, of course. It would be silly for me to say that money shouldn’t have been our focus or at least one of the focuses. However, we were worried to finish the money before even starting. This situation created a lot of initial friction with my co-founder that took us away from our primary goal. Get shit done quickly.
Listening To The Noise
In startup land, there’s so much noise that it’s not that difficult to understand why so many startups fail. Obviously, the noise is not the only reason for failure. But as acoustic noise, figurative noise can be quite distractive. Everyone around had a word for me. All of a sudden, I found myself surrounded by experts and I fell for it.
I listened to everyone because I was scared to miss out on some important advice. Meeting up for coffee with other founders became a routine. Attending events (of all kind) became a necessity. Showing my face to every possible person around was a must. Asking for advice to “important” people was a need. I didn’t know where help could come from. I had to keep the door open. One thing I found out during my startup days is that literally, everyone is ready to comment on your activities as if they are saying the ultimate truth. Well, that’s bullshit! Among hundreds of people I met with during these days, I believe one or two were worth listening and I am grateful I met them. All the others were just noise.
Noise comes in all forms, be careful not to get distracted!
The most common noise is the useless one. This is the noise that annoys you because it’s distracting. It distracts you pretty much in every moment of the day. This can take the form of people and events, of course, but also blogs and books. Then there’s the destructive noise. This one is the noise that aims at hurting you. I am talking about those feedbacks or comments that have the only aim of destroying.
I welcome all type of feedback, just to be clear. I don’t think it’s a good idea to tell someone “Try and you will see if it works”. No, there’s should be some kind of “moderation” as of how people decide to start a startup. But this destructive noise is the one that goes like “This will never work” and that’s it. No explanation. No further (meaningful) comment. Nothing.
I have had a couple of these during my days by (let me be honest here) pretentious pricks. For whatever reasons they thought they were in the right position to destroy my idea and me because they were on the other side of the table. Still, I kept trying to meet them because I hoped to get some money out of them. I know, that’s completely fu@#ked up. Don’t ask me why I did that.
If You Come Across Destructive Noise, Stand Up And Walk Away!
Startup competitions are also noise. Not sure though in which category they fall. It is surely useless most of the times. Startup competitions are kind of pointless unless we are talking maybe about Techcrunch Disrupt. Most likely though this one as well is pointless per se, but at least you get decent coverage, if you manage to win. I thought that attending competitions as well as getting a badge under my belt would increase chances to get funding. In a way, these give your startup some exposure. But the time and effort you put in these events is substantial and should not be taken out of creating a product and get shit done.
Once, I forced my co-founder to develop an app for our startup, just to take part in one competition. Did we need an app for our business? No, not at all if you are wondering.
Decide Wisely Which Competition To Attend, Especially In The Early Stage!
Startup competitions can also be destructive though. You seat in a room full of people ready to judge you with no real background in your industry. Be ready to meet some pricks.
Partnering With The Wrong People
This a recurring point in my blog posts because I believe this to be the easiest mistake a startup founder can do. You need money, you need a co-founder, you need employees. You just need someone and rarely you are in the position to choose. I love to read about the bullshit of choosing “A players” only for your startup. “A players” most likely want to get paid. Can you afford them?
Wrong partners can break teams. They can give you wrong directions and don’t give you what you actually need. Partnerships, be it with investors, suppliers or employees (yes, these are also partnerships) are crucial to early-stage startups. If you partner with the wrong one, particularly investors, then you just married someone you can’t divorce with.
Partnerships Are Like Marriages, Be Careful Before You Commit!
Employees are also partners. In the early days, each employee will need to be committed to your startup beyond the obvious. You don’t need an employee in the early days, you need another co-founder. You need someone who is ready to take responsibility and is not afraid of doing something that it’s not written in the job description. The reality though is that most of the early-stage startups have limited funds and time to find the right employee. This leads to wrong decisions most of the time. You don’t need someone experienced. You need someone who gets the shit done and work on your side as if they were there from day one!
Startup founders should question continuously the role of their early stage employees. If they are just doing what they are supposed to do, fire them. Once again, most likely this was not an “A Player” anyways. It shouldn’t be that difficult to replace him or her.
Keep Your Shit Real
My startup experience was not the best, but not even the worst. Despite being in rough waters for the majority of the time, there’s one thing that I am always happy about. You can read about how startup founders clash and (figuratively) kill each other. Well, I am glad to say that this experience helped my ex-co-founder and me become even better friends. We went through some tough shit together and came out of it quite clean.
Don’t lose touch with reality!
When you realize that your startup is about to go down, keep it real. There’s no need to push beyond the boundaries. Before getting into debts, find a solution. Your startup doesn’t necessarily need to close down; you can work on it part-time. Hustling doesn’t mean finding yourself in shit loads of debts. This means to work your ass off even when in bad waters. Finding a job to support your startup dream is not that bad unless you don’t keep your startup running just for the sake of it.
Keeping in touch with reality will be the best way for you to avoid many mistakes. I wish I could have done that earlier.