From Founders for Founders

By Sebastian Mueller

Fail Forward — Fail Fearlessly

Following the popular mantra, we at MING Labs have tried a lot and failed a lot. This is especially true for our venturing aspirations. Since founding, we have worked with and on more than 25 start-ups. Some were our own, most were brought to us by their founders. In some, we were just a service partner, in some, we took a real equity stake.

We were fortunate enough to work with an array of great founders, but also an array of terrible ones. Every single failure, more than every success, gave us an incredible in-depth lesson, as we were not only hands-off investors, but on the very frontier of the company. On the very frontier of every decision, every meeting, every fight, and every win. Working with the founders on every aspect from business model to product, and being pulled into investor pitches and every single escalation.

Having lived through that amount of intense and diverse venturing experience within just a few years has brought our thinking to levels that provide us with a certain confidence that, for some steps of the process, we now know what works. At least, we know what does not work and can avoid many pitfalls.

One of the worst mistakes we made was going at it alone. We believe ourselves to have a world-class design team and to be able to conceptualize and deliver great digital products. That’s our bread and butter. However, in a new venture, that is far from enough. There is no “build it and they will come”. After the beta is ready, the real work begins. And that’s where we fall short for many different reasons. It’s really not our core.

In the founder-run businesses that we have worked with, we have been able to collaborate with a wide array of different personalities. From the local Chinese lady who has an idea to ride on the digitial gold rush in the country, the China veteran who worked as a shipping broker for over a decade with a new passion, to the agency owner who wants to get out of that business and build his dream.

One of the most important lessons we have learned, except from not being able to go at it alone, is that the founder/founding team is so much more important than the idea. We can take most good ideas, really make them our own, elevate them, and conceptualize strong services models and value propositions. In the end, it comes down to execution, time and time again. There are people who know how to do it, there are people who can learn it on the job, and there are people whose talents are simply not in that area.

Finding Founders for Firms

Picking the right partner for such a venture is like getting married, that metaphor has been around for a long time. And it holds true. “Dating” a founder, getting to know the idea, getting each other ever more excited about it — those are the great early days. But if they are unable to deliver their part, as we have those clear roles, there will only be fights, and it will end in a (sometimes messy) divorce.

The perfect partner for us, we have learned this through all successes and failures, is not the young drop-outs or graduates who want to hack their way to success. Or the highly technical expert with a new algorithm to optimize some process. Or just about anybody with some money on the side and a new idea. Our ideal partner is business founders. People who have been around the block of really running a company. This includes hiring, marketing, sales, and so forth. At MING Labs, we are happy to support in all these areas, but our ideal partner is in full charge and knows how it works. They make the plans, they execute them, and they pivot when needed.

Looking at who typically founds a business, there is nearly always a founder — or at least co-founder — with a strong tech background, who more often than not also codes the first product. Many people are not like that and do not have someone like that. What they do have is a smart idea, a great vision, and a plan how to get there. All they need is a partner.

Looking at other models, like Rocket Internet, where these people only get to participate with a minimal equity stake (sometimes as low as <20% of founding equity), there is just no appreciation for their work. And, in turn, they are not as motivated and ingenious as they could be. They act like they are treated — as employees with some shares. That is why we are not looking for majority shareholdings, but for great founders to support and to share in their vision. They need to really be owning and driving the venture.

We find that there are a lot of these people who are currently stuck. They are stuck because they might have a great idea/vision, and they know how to make the numbers work, but they don’t know how to build a product. Finding a CTO based on the business plan is challenging, convincing the first designers and developers to join without a product is almost impossible, and even knowing who is a good engineer is not in their core skill set. Usually, they are in a comfortable corporate job — not excited, but secure. So they decide to put their aspirations on hold as they have no one to work with them and no way to move forward. This is not true of everyone, but of many.

We come across these cases time and time again. There is an incredible amount of potential, which we are truly excited about. After having our story published on TechInAsia, we received inquiries from more than 50 such founders. There is a lot of them out there.

Picking the right people is a challenge of course. There is a whole cult, or hype, about founding companies, and by far not everyone who wants to go at it is necessarily equipped with the right skill set or background. The founders we aspire to work with, but also aspire to be like, are actually quite rare and full of contrast. They have a big vision but are very much in the day-to-day details. They are completely convinced of their course yet are very open to discussion. They are completely emotional about their mission yet very rational about every decision along the way.

At MING Labs, we believe that only truly passionate founders with a vision and real grit will be able to create truly successful companies. So many examples of ventures that were created on a spreadsheet, funded with corporate money, and run by hired managers, just completely go wrong. There is no passion, no vision, and no buy-in.

We are passionate about working with business founders and helping them to become tech entrepreneurs — by being their platform and their co-founder. We want to give an opportunity to those currently forgotten by the whole start-up hype and ecosystem to realize their dreams.

We know you are out there, and we are here for you. Please get in touch with us if you feel that we can be of help, if only as a sounding board.

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