Mistakes I Made as a First Time Founder
I started my first startup Quillo while in my third year of University. I spent two years giving everything I had to the startup’s vision and for the goal of making it a roaring success. In doing so, I learned some hard lessons; I made countless mistakes and went down paths that cost the success of the startup. These mistakes are an intrinsic part of doing anything new, and I am grateful for the lessons I have learned from them.
In this article, I’ll discuss the most important lessons I learned through this journey.
You and your co-founders form the company’s backbone and DNA; its culture, the product it builds, and how it creates it is all determined by the first few people working on the project. You will also spend an inordinate amount of time with your co-founders; assuming you work as hard as a startup demands, you will spend more time with your co-founder than your significant other or family.
Simply put, the founding team is the most vital ingredient in an early startups success, more so than the idea or the funding, and you will work countless back-breaking hours with this team. So make sure it is the right team.
The mistake I made was to rush into partnerships and give 50% of my company away when I barely knew my cofounder. Imagine going on a first date with someone and getting married the next day; this is what I did multiple times with various co-founders.
What you do when dating is very similar to what you should do when finding a co-founder, go on dates! Work on small projects together; make sure they can do the things they claim they do and that you work well together. You will spend 90% of your time with this person for the next five years, so make sure it’s the right person. Don’t be afraid to have hard conversations and ask hard questions because doing so now will save you a world of pain down the line.
Lastly, there is a beautiful thing called vesting that I was oblivious to when starting. Vesting is when instead of you and your partner instantly getting 50% of the company from day one, it vests over multiple years, meaning only after four years of work will you and your partner get your 50%. I would strongly recommend a one year cliff as well, meaning neither you nor your partner receives a single percentage point of equity until you have worked on the company for at least one year. This structure ensures you and your partner are committed, and if one of you is not, it does not bring down the whole boat when one leaves.
There is a term in rock climbing called over gripping, which happens when you pull on the rock too hard because you are afraid to fall. You exhaust all your energy pulling yourself to the wall when instead you can gently hang and trust that you are strong enough to hold on. When you overgrip, you tire yourself out and cannot think freely and creatively to find the easiest route up the wall.
A very similar phenomenon happened to me while building my startup. My identity became intertwined with the startup, and I was convinced that this was my one chance if I was ever going to be successful. Consequently, I was afraid to fall off the metaphorical wall; I was scared to fail and did everything in my power to prevent failure instead of worrying about how to succeed. When I was building my first startup, it felt as if it would be the literal end of the world if it failed. So I worked way too hard, and I was way too stressed to enjoy my work and think creatively to solve problems.
When you are paralysed by fear, you don’t try new things; you don’t take risks, you don’t experiment, and you don’t think creatively. All things which are absolute necessities in growing a successful startup.
There are two things I wish I understood back then: Firstly, your first startup is unlikely to be the one that makes it. Thomas Edison tried more than 10,000 times to invent the light bulb. Steven Spielberg was rejected from film school three times before getting his huge break. Henry Ford founded two automotive companies that failed before he was able to gain success with the Ford Motor Company. The more times you do it and more importantly, the more times you fail, the more likely you are to succeed the next time due to all the lessons you learn.
Secondly, your goal should not be to prevent failure; it should be to maximise learning and fun. You should enjoy your work; you should wake up every day and feel inspired looking at your day ahead; life is too short not to. Moreover, you should do everything in your power to optimise how much you learn, and the most effective way to learn is to make many mistakes. So be open to taking risks, trying new creative solutions and approaching work with a sense of play instead of dread and fear.
- Don’t jump into bed with the first cofounder you meet; go through an extensive dating period and sign a vesting agreement with a 1-year cliff.
- Don’t overgrip; your startup will most likely fail. Don’t live to avoid failure; work to maximise joy and learning.
This post is part of a 30-day writing challenge I am doing. Every day for 30 days, I am posting an article of at least 500 words. If you notice that I miss a day, I will buy you lunch.