15 steps to launch your own startup

How to build a tech business from scratch

I was only 19 when I moved to Berlin to study Computer Science and International Management. My big dream was to start a global tech company that would have a lasting impact in Europe. Now, Wunderlist is almost three years old and looking back, things have turned out so much more differently than what I had expected. So far it has been the best time of my life –What a ride!

1. Dream big and start small

If you are dreaming about starting your own company, but you don’t know exactly what it is you want to do or if it’s even the right time, use your time to study. Starting a fast-growing tech business is incredibly challenging, and requires a variety of skills. The time you take to study allows you to explore your talents and find the one thing you really excel at.

Stanford University in California

2. Work to learn, not to earn

Now that you’ve studied hard and really gotten deep into a particular discipline, it’s time to broaden your skill set. While it’s critical to become deeply skilled in one area of the business, the required skill-set to start and run a company is much more varied. Starting a tech business requires a strong sense for products, timing, trends and markets, which you can only acquire through experience.

3. Join the community and meet founders

Spending time with ambitious and like minded people shaped my own path. Most of my friends are developers, designers, entrepreneurs, and work for different kinds of startups. When you move to a new city, like I did, it can take some time to connect with other founders. Leo Widrich, one of the co-founders of Buffer, wrote a great, provocative piece about the importance of the people you spend time with, and quoted the entrepreneur Jim Rohn:

4. Find the right location

When I started my first company in Berlin, I lived and worked in my apartment with one of my co-founders. There was no need for an office, we built our product right from our living room. The apartment was incredibly cheap, and we had such a fun time. We were living in Berlin Mitte, right in the very center of Berlin and constantly had people stopping by for a chat. That’s how “the early days” look for a lot of founders and I believe if you rent a space in the center of a startup hub, you will find it much easier to connect with like minded people and share ideas. It’s inspiring and motivating.

5. Identify good and bad ideas, early

As founders we all have a ton of new product ideas, each and every day. Some of them sound promising, but only a few have the real potential to become a successful, fast-growing and highly profitable business.

  • Before Instagram, uploading photos was hard. Again, the mobile phone and Instagram’s smart uploading process solved this problem.
  • Before Instagram, sharing images was hard. The integration of Tumblr, Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter made sharing photos incredibly easy.

6. Understand trends and markets

When we’ve launched Wunderlist, Dropbox and Evernote have been two of fastest-growing cloud businesses world-wide. Both had a great traction, and demonstrated that it’s possible to scale a productivity app to a huge customer base. Both companies helped pushing the trend around the cloudamongst users, journalists and investors. The cloud itself is a huge topic in the tech industry, and it helped us tremendously to gain attention and to grow into the business we are today. But when we initially started raising money — for building a new project management tool — investors fell asleep. Seriously, when I just mentioned the word “Project Management”, their eyes started rolling. No one believed in it.

7. Think like an athlete — Define your mission

When I talk about entrepreneurship, I often talk about athletes. Athletes always train with a clear objective, like participating in a competition, or more specifically winning it. If you want to be an entrepreneur, think like an athlete and define your own mission. Why do you want to build a business? What’s your main objective as an individual? What do you want your own career to look like in 30 years? Don’t be small-minded! Widen your horizon and think how you want to influence the people around you, and maybe even change the world. Define the purpose of your business, and you as an individual.

8. Prepare to fail, 95% do

That’s a tough one, but it’s so important. Starting a global tech business with international, well-educated and highly-skilled people, generating millions of revenue per month, is incredibly hard. You will experience unbelievable lows, including running out of money, or seeing important people leaving or shutting down a business you worked so hard for. Remember, that’s preciously your job. Being an entrepreneur means taking risks, because without that you will never be truly successful.

9. Find the right co-founders and advisors

Starting a company isn’t easy. However, there is a way to help manage risks and to deal better with day-to-day challenges — and that is by having great co-founders. Having the right co-founders is incredibly important. You deal with them every day and you will fight, win and lose together. It’s hard to find them, because you will only know you’ve made the right choice, after you start or complete your adventure together.

10. Raise your first round of money, or bootstrap your company

There are two ways of starting a tech business. You either do it on your own, taking all risks and responsibilities yourself (“bootstrapping”), or you find investors that believe in your company. Both ways are great, I’ve tried both, but personally I wouldn’t try to start something again without partners. Wunderlist is the first business I secured the interest of experienced investors, including Atomico, Earlybird, Sequoia & Thrive. They’ve worked with hundreds of entrepreneurs, and built huge tech companies themselves, and I wouldn’t be where I am without them.

11. Learn how to hire and maintain your company culture

Determining who to hire is a powerful skill to have and it’s very difficult to learn. As a founder you need to develop this skill very quickly. You will make mistakes early on, and it’s vital that you identify them and correct them very quickly. Creating a sustainable, healthy and positive company culture in a fast-growing and fast-changing startup environment is tough, and many companies fail at it.

12. Prepare yourself to become a manager

The road from being a founder, to becoming a CEO or a manager is a very long and bumpy one. Most good founders somehow are crazy, in a good way. They often have ridiculous work ethics, are naive, and ignore what others say. They are often simply not the ideal person to work with. It rarely ends good if those founder attributes meet the pressure of a young company trying to survive.

13. Find advisors and mentors to build your business

Throughout this guide I’ve mentioned a couple of times that I’m lucky to have mentors and advisors on my side, helping me to define a strategy for building Wunderlist. In retrospect, after working on it for more than 4 years, and going through some intensive ups and downs, I can truly say: having these people around me is one of the biggest reasons it all still exists. To be even more clear, without these people, I’m convinced it would have never started in the first place.

14. Be ready for constant change

I learned many painful but great lessons over the past few years. One was how to deal with constant change. When you decide to build a technology company, you are faced with one of the fastest moving industries on the planet. Technology changes so quickly, and along with it, markets and people.

15. Work hard and be nice to people

Being mindful while maintaining just the right sense of urgency is incredibly hard. It requires a lot of experience to give people the freedom to learn and more importantly, to fail.

Founder Pitch & Wunderlist

Founder Pitch & Wunderlist