Advice for first-time founders

I spent this weekend talking with lots of early stage first-time founders. Thanks to the Female Founders Conference there’ve been lots of great events in San Francisco and Mountain View, full of talented people.

The same questions came up often, so I’ve pulled the answers together here into a semi-structured article.

I’ve kept this quite concise. There are exceptions to the advice below, however you should assume you are not the exception. It’s blunt because people are often not critical enough of their work.


Founder = growth = startup

As a founder your sole aim is growth.

If you don’t have growth now, you are failing.

Most of the questions you have will be answered by pursuing growth. For example “when should I hire an engineer?” or “what should my distribution strategy be?”. If you have to make numbers this week, you’ll quickly have an informed opinion on those matters.

If you say “we’re not yet in our growth phase” you’re probably hiding from the truth you don’t have growth. And probably failing.

Common ways people distract themselves from the fact they’re not growing:

  • “I’m building an app… it’ll be ready in a few months”
  • “We’re in test launch / stealth…”
  • “I need to find a co-founder / hire X”
  • “I’m having customer development conversations this month”

As a founder, you don’t get to make excuses.

Motivational tool: Report your weekly revenue / engaged users / transations and weekly growth to someone you want to impress.

Co-founders

Growth is the priority, not finding a co-founder.

Co-founders are incredibly valuable. They vastly increase the amount of stuff you can get done, and help you through the many hard patches. You should be excited to share the company with them. They pay for themselves in revenue-growth terms.

It is like a marriage. Same rules apply. You don’t marry strangers. Your marriage may last decades.

Technology is a tax on scale

Creating a startup != building an app

Technology is a neccessary tax to cope with scale. If you don’t have scale, you probably don’t need (much) technology.

Don’t let technology be a growth barrier if it doesn’t have to be. Grow now.

Technology is bad. It distances you from users. It slows down iterations. It’s expensive to build. It provides a worse experience than you could provide in person or over email.

Avoid building things if at all possible:

  • Try no-tech: Concierge over email and the phone. Capture demand, then work out how to fufill. Create content manually and send to user
  • Try low-tech: Wufoo forms. Google sheets. Zapier. Intercom. Optimizely. CMS. Microblog. Prototyping tools. Make facades that just email you directly. Wizard of Oz
  • Service more demand with what you already have
  • Cut features
  • Ship something more basic

Some products e.g. Twitter are hard to deliver without tech. However far too often people wrongly assume they need technology to begin.

You could ship a primative Facebook by editing static content and embedding some forms.

If you can grow now without technology, that’s a great success, not a weakness.

Ship now

You must grow. Therefore you must ship.

The most valuable learning is from strangers.

You need to ship to learn whether anyone wants to use your product.

Distrust attitudinal data. Seek out behavoural data. E.g. don’t ask “What do you think of this?”, see if they log in every day.

People will always try to say nice things to your face. You need strangers using your product in the wild.

How to tell if your product is working

You need a single metric. Revenue, transactions (e.g. calls made) or engaged users is often the best measure of how valuable people find your product.

Signups != users. Retweets != users. Letters of intent != users. These people often never use your product.

Metric number = Number of people who know about your product times Number of people who want to use it

Therefore, if your metric is zero, check that the two components are not zero. If they are, change that. If one’s definately not zero, the other is the problem.

If number of people who want to use it seems to be zero, change something. The longer this goes on, the bigger the thing you should change.

You can think about this as your confidence in the product: if numbers don’t grow, your confidence decays, and you therefore make bigger and bigger changes.

Make big bold changes. You often find out useful new directions this way.