Photo credit to my Belgrade friend Zoja Kukic (@ZojaKu)

The power of making lists

Making a list of people you need is a small step for man, but a giant leap for founders.

When I was growing up, one of my favorite pastimes was to invent imaginary worlds. Airports for towns where we lived, schools with ice cream parlors and arcade game rooms, even imaginary countries, with imaginary cities and imaginary beaches.

When I started my first company, I continued with that habit in a way. I’d come up with lists of companies that should be our customers, and we’d contact them, sometimes by cold-calling, sometimes through common acquaintances. Taking a break from the rollercoaster of everyday tasks, my cofounder and I would imagine how our company would look like in xx years. How would board meetings look like? Who’d be the receptionist in the lobby? How will we migrate our clunky CRM to a custom-made solution, integrated with all our databases?

I still do that today, although imagination has been largely replaced with down-to-earth knowledge about how things work, and which of these things or people behind them I hadn’t yet thought about. Right, who else is in this business? What do those guys do?

Apart from my childhood love of daydreaming, a big part of the skill was learned in investment banking. The whole trick of that business is to research a company deeper than anyone else, and get the customer on the phone faster than anyone else.

My imaginary worlds have transformed into lists in my Evernote and spreadsheets in my Google Drive. I look up companies that exited in the verticals I’m interested in on Crunchbase and VentureBeat Profiles. Then I look up the names of the founders on AngelList and LinkedIn. Bingo, I’m connected with three of the four. Who’s the connector? Alright, that guy we were drinking beers with together in Vienna at Pioneers Festival last year. Gotta put down their names in my little list and ask for an intro.

It’s pretty simple homework stuff, really.

You don’t need to predict the future if you make it happen.

In one of his epic posts, called Startup Ideas, Paul Graham wrote “Live in the future, then build what’s missing”. Most people relate to this in terms of products and services that we can imagine but don’t yet exist. But this also applies to your current projects. Where will they be in a year, in two years? What are the missing circumstances today that can take you there?

Brandon Gadoci from the Disruption Corporation wrote a great post about the “Invisible Game”. Being in the right place, meeting the right people is his message. Woody Allen also famously remarked that “Eighty percent of success is showing up”. So where do you show up and who do you have to meet there?

Getting behind the scenes

The reality of building tech products is that you have to talk to people who are professionally excited about what you’re doing. Your mom isn’t one of them. Usually, it’s also not anyone in your average 1–2mm city in Europe or North America. Whether to understand the real need of a market, or to secure an investment or a lucrative distribution deal, you need to know what’s going on behind the scenes.

Why is that investor investing in that startup? How did those guys get a prime listing on the app marketplace?

I wouldn’t bet on a startup that hasn’t researched the who-is-who of their vertical, market, and potential investors.

At a few recent Leancamp sessions in Europe, my obsession with lists was given a name, the Max 100. The conceptual idea there was to help founders break out iterating prototypes till forever, and help them understand the mechanics of both need-finding and distribution, for which unhindered access to markets and players is mandatory.

When the Italian novelist Umberto Eco was asked how he starts writing his historical novels, he said “I see a detailed picture, like a painting, and I study it.” According to Eco, his first masterpiece “The Name of the Rose” started with an image of a knight on a horse. It ended up being 512 pages, printed millions of times.

Who’s your knight on a horse? The best way to find out is to start making your list today.