daily articles for founders

Here are 10 quality posts from the Founder's Library:

How to evaluate a non-technical cofounder  

Nathan Hurst on how to evaluate a non-technical cofounder:

If you're joining someone else's company, the team has to be good enough for you to give up [100 - (your equity share)]% of the company. Let's consider the situation where there is a sole non-technical founder approaching you to be the other member of the founding team. How should you evaluate that person/startup?

The key points to look out for, according to Nathan, are:

  • Traction (measured differently for different kinds of startups);
  • Domain expertise;
  • Marketing ability;
  • Fundraising ability;
  • Product skill;
  • Respect for development;
  • Startup experience;
  • Relevant connections/following.

Really, joining a startup as a cofounder is like being a major investor in that startup. You should use many of the same metrics as any investor (as a bonus, this will teach you how to pitch your startup).

One meta-metric that comes to mind, in addition to this list, is whether or not the startup/founder really needs you to succeed. If the startup needs you specifically in order to have a ghost of a chance, then you're not joining it - it's joining you. And so the negotiations about share percentages should reflect that.

Building international relationships  

Irina Dzhambazova shares how Bulgarian startups deal with obscurity, and succeed building international relationships:

Serendipity and true partnerships

"Investing time in getting to know an organisation or a person, without looking for the immediate quid pro quo is the way to go. Just get to know people, interact with them in the manner you do with friends and leave the rest to chance." - Vesselina Tasheva

Good partners understand each others goals and can act proactively on each other's behalf. This type of relationship is much easier when you can relate this way at a personal level. Vesselina's advice is to start here - the deal's come more easily later.

She's the former partnerships manager for a large, multi-national IT company, and now runs community for the largest accelerator in Southeast Europe, so has seen this work in both contexts.

Getting in the door, with research

Max Gurvits, an internationally-connected investor, emphasises the value of a little research. He encourages startups to invest a few hours in a list of 100 desired connections.

He wants them to do the mental exercise and leap to realize just how many people are hidden in Linkedin, Crunchbase, or alumni groups. All they have to do is look rather than rely on the obvious choices. Probabilistically, this larger amount of people also increases the chances of a connection actually happening and being helpful.

A list of 100 might seem daunting at first, but it's easier if you break it down into categories:

  • ideal customers
  • distribution partners
  • investors
  • analogs (companies who've done something similiar and can share benchmarks and advice)
  • compeititors
  • antilogs (comppanies who've tried something similar and failed)
  • domain experts, including press

Aim for a minimum of 10 per category, and you'll probably start finding a lot more low-hanging fruit.

Being equal

Boyan Benev, learned the importance of equal terms early on in his real estate career. He now has a few startups behind him and is a national TV personality. "If you put yourself as an inferior, you effectively are saying ‘Hey I am different from you.' People are very good at sensing that and, with the neediness that you exude, they would subconsciously judge you more harshly. We are in fact all the same, entrepreneurs, investors and venture capitalists and we should feel equal with each other all the time."

Lino Velev, director of Obecto, a software development company, starts on the outskirts of a certain social groups. For him, getting to the core through the weaker connections is more practical than going straight for the big fish.

Lino relies on story-telling to be memorable. I also happen to know he parties a lot too!

All of these are viable, authentic, and easy approaches to building your international network. Sofia, Bulgaria now has a growing startup scene, but it happened because of founders like these, hustling their way up from the remote, Southeast corner of Europe.

You have to be prepared; it takes a while for your network to build. But it usually pays off faster than you expected. No reason to let your current obscurity stop you.

Criticism and two-way streets  

Great design approach by Des Traynor in this post:

Like Apple, Microsoft encourages their designers to create many different solutions to any given design problem. But picking an outright winner isn't easy. It can cause arguments and standstills. The quality of resolution here defines the quality of the design process. Who gets to decide? Is it the loudest shouter? The most senior? The highest paid? None of these are correct by default.

Every solution is great in some circumstances and terrible in others. Design debates are best settled by inviting everyone to present their solution, but also explain under what circumstances their solution is terrible. Finally they're asked to explain under what circumstances their colleague's solution would be better. This is what Bill Buxton refers to as walking on both sides of the street.

This can be scaled down to a small startup team. When solving a tricky design problem, ask everyone involved to come up with some solutions, then get them to explain when their solution won't work, and why the solutions they didn't come up with are better.

The article makes several other interesting points.

How to develop disruptive ideas  

Great article from Luke Williams, the author of Disrupt, about how to develop disruptive ideas:

Most people in business are trained to focus only on problems: things that don't work and need fixing. It's more effective to start by identifying something in your business or industry that's not necessarily a problem, and then go about methodically breaking it down using the following steps.

Luke proposes 3 steps:

  1. Define the domain you want to disrupt; this should be a domain where things have been stagnant for some time.
  2. Find the business clichés; figure out the assumptions that everyone in the industry makes.
  3. Start overturning those assumptions: ask "What would happen if we _ _ _ _ _ _ ?" where _ _ _ _ _ _ is something that the industry takes for granted.

Luke provides examples too:

Let's look at the soda industry. Inverting "soda is inexpensive," gives you "soda is expensive." Reversing "tastes good" gives you "tastes terrible," both of which sound completely ridiculous. But, you can't break the clichés without going through this step, which is exactly what Red Bull did. It placed absolutely no importance on taste, the product is double the price of Coca-Cola, and it dispensed with marketing aspirational images. The message was that Red Bull may not necessarily make you feel happy, but it'll definitely give you a shot of energy when you need it.

The article is worth a read (and maybe the book too).

Getting into a startup right after university  

Some great tips by Jean Hsu. Startups won't hire fresh graduates on the basis that "they can do the job already". They will hire on the basis of potential. It is understood that it will take time and training to grow a new graduate into a fully productive hire (and that, largely, is why graduates make less money than experienced hires).

Here are Jean's tips:

  1. Try to get personal recommendations, by letting your friends know you're looking for a startup job, and going to relevant meetups and events.
  2. Tailor your resumé to the job you're applying for.
  3. List extra-curricular projects. In my opinion, those are often much more interesting and convincing than anything you may have done in class.
  4. Have an online presence so you stand out.
  5. Prepare for the interview by reading up on the startup and familiarising yourself with the product.
  6. Be relaxed, friendly, comfortable (be yourself!) during the interview - they're not just testing you on your technical ability, they also want to check they can work with you day in day out.

Don't forget to evaluate whether you want to work at that startup. For a new graduate, the calculation is slightly different, in that almost any job will teach you a lot, but don't let yourself stagnate during your first few years out of university - they are possibly the most important of your career, in terms of their potential to set your direction for the next 10, 20 years.

The main advantage of a startup job for a college graduate is that you will be able to grow into a position of responsibility much, much faster than at a larger company - but you do need to go about it deliberately to make the most of it.

Another piece of advice: if the "startup" turns out to be nothing like what it advertised itself as (some people are unscrupulous about calling their small businesses startups), leave quickly! The personal growth opportunities in a small business which isn't growing are usually extremely limited.

What is your definition of "success" as an entrepreneur?

It's very hard to pin down a universal definition of success, because there are many components that can go into your vision of a successful entrepreneurial lifestyle:

  • financial: survival, independence, wealth, extreme wealth
  • inspirational: making do, making a small or big positive difference, enabling huge positive change
  • emotional: being unhappy, happy, enthusiastic, ecstatic about your work
  • relational/life balance: having no time for others, having some time, having a lot of time, having complete freedom of how you spend your time
  • educational: learning nothing, learning a little, learning a lot, becoming a world expert
  • organisational: being chaotic, somewhat organised, well organised, running like clockwork
  • environmental: being neutral/negative, helping a bit, a lot, solving a major environmental challenge
  • fame: unknown, known in a small or large circle, world-famous
  • ...

One might find it easier to try and list the things that cannot be a component of a person's vision of success, than those that can. Success is an extremely subjective idea. Everyone has their own definition, and no generic definition will suit even a large minority, let alone a majority of people.

Even if we pick a specific context, like, say, someone working in a corporate environment and looking to get out, the definition of "success" can vary extremely widely depending on outlook, ambition, and personal circumstances.

However, unless you know what success looks like to you, it will be much harder to visualise it, work out what you need to get there, and achieve it. It's really worth making that effort for yourself. What are you trying to achieve? How will you know when you've done it?

Of course, that's all about defining one's own success. What about defining the success of others? With the question posed in this way, it is easier to answer, because we are generally more willing to simplify the goals of others than our own.

Finding a definition of "success" that a large number of people will agree reflects their own definition for themselves is almost impossible. Finding one that reflects what people mean when they point at someone else and say "this guy/girl is successful" is markedly easier.

Looking at it in that way, and focusing on purely the financial element (which is common amongst most, if not all, entrepreneurs), I think we can agree that there is a simple hierarchy of financial success for entrepreneurs:

  1. Survival: can generate enough revenues to survive without needing to take investment or get a job;
  2. Comfort: can generate enough revenue to be able to live well;
  3. Wealth: generates more than enough revenues (or sells the company) to be able to live wealthily ever after;
  4. Mega-wealth: generates ridiculous amounts of money.

I think it's fair to say that an entrepreneur who is able to reliably create businesses that will enable them to survive without needing external help is already successful to some respectable measure. However, most people are not satisfied with this level, and will go on to at least level 2, where they can live well off the revenues which they generate. Finally, few will progress onto stage 3, and almost none to stage 4.

There are many other possible goals for an entrepreneur, but all of them typically become easier to achieve with financial success, so in almost all cases, financial success is worth considering. However, many entrepreneurs fail to reach even level 1 (largely, as I've argued before, through predictable errors). This site's aim is to help founders reach at least level 1.

Premature design optimisation  

Here's a great article by Des Traynor, making the point that you have to get the basics (whatever the basics are in your context) before working on the polish, but also the counterpoint that in some cases, polish is part of the basics:

The lean startup movement advocates as little work as possible before validating your business model. Lean is one of those words, like Agile, that are chosen deliberately because they set-up a false dichotomy. No one wants to say they're a Fat Startup. Or that they do Clumsy Development. So everyone is now adopting the Lean Startup® Methodology.

Lean is often misinterpreted as "don't waste time on polish". Sometimes the polish is all that counts. You can't judge the market for a five star hotel by building a seedy motel and seeing how well it performs. In some cases the quality of product is more important than the type. When the interface is the killer feature, it's tricky to go "lean". If your belief is that people will appreciate a fully polished beautiful to-do list, you can't show them a scrappy UI to test the market.

I think there's a very slight straw man at work there, in that the alternative to great design isn't appalling design, but slightly less great design. If you have a decent designer, they should be able to put together something much better than the wGet UI Des presents as a "lean design", in a relatively short time.

Going from good to great is still a lot of work, but perhaps it is possible to partially test the market for a 5-star hotel by leaving the golf course and the spa till later.

Final point: Lean doesn't advocate putting out crappy designs, it advocates doing the minimum that works to test your hypotheses. If design is indeed necessary for the assumption you're testing, then it should certainly be on your to-do list.

Starting out? clone threewords.me  

Gabriel Weinberg suggests, quite rightly, that aiming to build something like threewords.me is a great approach to startups for a new entrepreneur.

I couldn't agree more. It's the "throw things to the wall and see what sticks" approach, and also what I would recommend to myself if I could travel back in time. This impatient approach may not be the best for building a great startup, but it is the best for building a great entrepreneur.

Anatomy of a landing page  

Very good overview of key elements of a landing page. Don't mistake the visual representation of it for the guideline. This link is useful because it highlights 10 key principles of a good landing page, which, in conjunction with the AIDA principle, will help you design an effective landing page.

Cheap startup advertising  

Rob Walling, following on an earlier article about the half-life of traffic sources (go read it if you haven't yet), describes some concrete ways to use paid advertising to get some bursts of usage that (if your site is sticky enough) will then hopefully result in some customers or at least some validated learning. He covers:

  • Niche Advertising
  • Google AdWords
  • Facebook
  • StumbleUpon
  • Reddit

Each is broken down and detailed. Definitely worth a read if you're considering using paid advertising to drive some initial traffic to your site. As Rob points out:

To conclude, I want to reiterate what I said early in this article: unless you have deep pockets think of advertising not as a long-term traffic strategy, but as a testing tool to improve your website and find out more about your ideal visitor. Few bootstrapped startups can withstand the cash outlay required to turn advertising into a marketing activity with a positive ROI, but that shouldn't keep you from testing the waters to find out for yourself.