I was recently asked to give a lightning talk to students at Dev Bootcamp. As a bootcamp grad myself, I took the opportunity to share some lessons I’ve learned on the path to becoming a startup founder.
These are tips that I have found helpful. Take them like a t-shirt — try them on, and only keep them if they fit. Not everything will be applicable in all situations, but I hope there are some useful takeaways for everyone.
1. Choosing a small company over a big company 👼😈
There are pros and cons for working at a startup. My brother and I both entered tech through a coding bootcamp and took divergent paths. He has worked for 2 of the top 5 tech companies (Google & Amazon), while I have worked exclusively at startups. It’s my belief that working at startups is the best preparation to starting your own. Why is that?
That said, you should also consider the positives of a large company — the brand, talent, and higher pay.
2. Negotiate based on fairness ⚖️
Software engineers are often ignorant about the business side of startups. This can make for awkward situations:
“Wait, you think I only deserve 10% equity? I would expect at least 80%!”
A pre-req to starting a startup is listening to founder stories or lectures that discuss equity negotiation. I have found the book Slicing Pie to be an excellent resource that puts fairness first. The goal should be that everyone feels fairly treated. Y Combinator also has some excellent resources for learning about equity and company formation.
3. Ask and ye shall receive 🙏
The tech and founder communities are aligned with the concept of “paying it forward.” If you approach founders for advice and show respect and an open mind, you will often get it.
That’s not to say that you’ll never be brushed aside or ignored. But I have gotten valuable mentorship from startup founders, many of whom I reached out to without an introduction. The flip side of this is that you should also be willing to give mentorship and advice to others.
4. Flex your social muscles 💪
The stereotype of engineers is that we are an awkward, shy breed. But the reality of startups is that partnerships are formed through social circles. A partnership requires trust. Without making social connections in the industry, it will be difficult to find a partner.
That said, don’t be “that guy” who goes to an event and slips his business card to every human being. Go to events that you are interested in and try to meet interesting people. It will pay off!
5. De-risk ventures 😓
The common conception of startups is that they are inherently risky, and this is true. When I decided to quit my job to co-found Commandiv, my wife was 3 months pregnant. We both were well aware of the risk.
But not all ventures are equally risk. And it is possible to mitigate the risk, or de-risk it. The first way is to not be in “stealth mode” but actively seek out feedback on your idea. Be open to criticism and seek it. If you try to make the idea fail and it still succeeds then you’re on to something.
Another way of de-risking is to keep your day job until certainty is reached. It was acceptance into a reputable accelerator that gave me the momentum to quit my job. When the fruit blossoms, the leaves fall away. You’ll know when it’s time to quit your day job.
6. Learn to negotiate from a position of weakness 👊
This is a quote from Antonio Garcia Martinez’s book Chaos Monkeys. No matter what your background, you will not have the best set of cards as a first-time founder. You will have to do more with less and learn to create opportunities from nothing.
That means working harder than everyone else and being stubborn — something my wife will tell you that I’m great at.
7. Eyes on the prize 👀
There is tremendous opportunity in technology and startups. But it is also a competitive market. You will have to be laser-focused and work harder and smarter than everyone else. That takes passion and energy.
Make sure that you really believe in what you’re building, that you feel the pain of the problem you’re solving. There will be times when your faith is put to the test. If being a founder is appealing because of the “perks,” then you’ll be in for a rude awakening.
These are a few of my thoughts on preparing to be a startup founder. What are yours? Any helpful tips for junior engineers interested in entrepreneurship? Let me know in the comments.
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