Living 7 months in Paris and top 7 things i have learned about building a company
It was mid of January this year when I first walked into this place called Startup42, an incubator for early stage tech startups. That morning I had an appointment with the Managing Director, Maxime Pico. It was a cold morning in Paris and when I was walking from Gentilly to the Le Kremlin Bicetre, there were 2 things going on in my mind — is it Zentilly or Gentilly (it’s neither and it took me a week to pronounce it correctly) and what is this Startup42 is going to be like — shinny, organized and full of serious looking business people who would tell me what to do? Or may be not. Good thing, the conversation inside my head couldn’t go too far. It was only a 10 minutes walk. So I walked into the office and my first impression was, I love it. It was bit messy, no corporate shit, small and warm. Everyone was so friendly and enthusiastic. To give you an example, the whole crowd of SU42 switched to English for just 2 of us. We were the first foreign startuppers to join SU42.
We joined SU42 as a part of the program called French Tech Ticket. It is an initiative by French government to bring foreign founders in French tech ecosystem and support them with a very well designed incubation and acceleration program. When we got selected for the program, our MVP was a 2 minutes whiteboard animation with a voiceover to explain our super ambitious plan to change the world. We were at the idea stage with no market fit validation and what so ever. Fast-forward to this day after being incubated and hosted by Startup42 and supported by French Tech Ticket for 8 months, lots of iterations and pivots, we have a released product, acquired more than 100 customers and we are growing at a rate of 30% month over month.
The learning curve in last 7 months was amazing and I’m going summarize some of my top take-outs from this rapid and intensive incubation process. This is going to be a pretty long read. So a little background about us would help you understand better. So we are two 28 years old guys from Bangladesh with background of economics, urban planning and computer science. And like any other college kid of our time, we wanted to build the next big internet thing and be super rich. So we started our first startup 6 years ago. There was no business model but we managed to stay profitable from the first month till today. What we were doing was, we were solving problems of internet marketing niche by building softwares and selling those through unconventional sales channel like forums, blogs and email list. Which was good for making fast money but each product’s lifespan was quite short. So we had to keep building new products. We were making good living but not good enough to meet our ambition as an entrepreneur. So after a few analyses we found, we are great at building products, good at sales but super bad at building a company. We definitely need help. And that’s when French Tech Ticket happened.
Lesson #1: Mindset is everything
Winning is definitely important but what’s more important is Failing. The faster you will fail, the faster you will learn. As a founder my goal is not to win but to learn. And the faster I will learn, the faster my startup will grow. In my previous products, we were afraid of failing. That’s why; we were targeting smaller markets with less competition and better chance to win. As soon as my mindset changed from winning to learning, I could clearly see the improvements in our business model.
Lesson #2: Don’t take an answer for granted
A typical day in the life of a startupper consists of fixing broken stuffs, figuring out a solution for weird problems and understanding the reason behind the result. Simply put, it’s a battle against roadblocks of different size and shapes every time. Each problem is unique and each solution will be used in your company for a very long time. So taking an answer for granted is the worst thing you can do. No matter if it is from the experts, blogs, books or anywhere else. You need to be suspicious about it, test it and produce data. Data transforms an answer to a fact.
Lesson #3: Talk to your users
At Startup42 we used to have these mentoring sessions where founders from successful startups tells their stories very transparently with a follow up Q&A session. I have heard so many amazing behind the scene stories of fast growing startups. For example, a single guy at his late 20s building the most awesome community for mother-to-be. How cool is that! And all these stories have one thing in common — they talk to their users. So we adopted this strategy in our startup and we are seeing significant improvement already.
Lesson #4: Good answers come from good questions
This statement might seem really cheesy but it is a big eye opener for me as an entrepreneur. In our journey as a startupper, we often come across with situation where a qualitative question/answer is easier but not useful. On the other hand, quantitative questions are challenging but more realistic. So in the process of building a company, founders need to adopt the culture of asking good questions which would be followed by employees later on.
Lesson #5: Breakdown you goals into smaller milestones
Patience is not a virtue I have. But somehow I manage to use this habit as a tool of growth. One of the key strength of our team is the ability to rapidly execute plan. But we often had this problem to get lost for a while during a big sprint. Startup42, more specifically Maxime fixed this issue by pushing us to adapt a method where you breakdown you goal into smaller milestones and execute those milestones one at a time. Frequent achievement of milestones keeps the team focused and motivated. This is definitely one of the best productivity lesson, we have adapted in our startup.
Lesson #6: Invest 100% of your time for your customer
One of the major advantages of being an early stage startup is, we have nothing to loose and we can take wild risks. At the same time, one of the constraints in this level is, our resources are finite. So the best way to invest these resources is to create value for the customer. Specially during building the product, it is very easy to drift into building features for us instead of the customers. It’s very tempting and also very deceiving. One of our mentors shared their story about how they were spending 80% of their time in building features for themselves and not realising it. It was an eye opener for us. Now we always ask ourselves one simple question before investing any resource — who is going to benefit from the output?
Lesson #7: Enjoy the journey
I used to picture entrepreneurship as more like an overnight success than of a lifestyle. Now I understand entrepreneurship is not a phase but a total lifestyle. It is hard but at the same time, it is fulfilling. There is a sense of accomplishment in everyday life. I guess that is the reason; we are scared of working 9–5 at a job and then commit ourselves to an 80-hour workweek. It is not the success but the journey we are going to enjoy most.
I remember reading somewhere, most tech startup fails not because of their tech but for wrong mindset. We were lucky enough to figured out some of the issues with out mindset and management strategy. Thanks to Startup42 and French Tech Ticket :) Our session at SU42 just ended and we had an awesome demo day at Partech Shaker.
If you want to know more about Startup42's philosophy, there is a very detail Manifesto page in the website. When Maxime told us about these philosophies at the beginning of the session, it seemed random. Now at the end of the session, when i read any of the statement, i find it very relevant.