Joe Lennon


Why first-time founders can’t listen

As someone who’s had a startup not work out as planned (cough fail cough), one thing I’ve noticed is that we first-time founders always say “we wish people had told us this before” when we fail. We’ll write post-mortems full of the same old clichéd startup advice that’s being going around for years. Focus on one thing. Sales are the key. Solve a problem people actually have. Don’t raise money until you need it. We are completely oblivious to the fact that many people probably told us every single one of these things before we started. We just didn’t take it in.

Sad monkey. Source: Joshua Newton / Stocksnap

When I think about why we don’t listen to this advice before we start a company, two things come to mind:

  1. We are so smothered with lots of conflicting advice, either directly from people we know or from reading too much online content about startups — that it’s almost impossible to know what to listen to and what not. When it’s all over, it becomes much clearer what advice we should have listened to because now we know.
  2. We are so focused and confident about our vision that we refuse to believe that we will fall into the same trap everyone else does. We have blinkers on and think we’re smarter than everyone else, more determined than everyone else and that we will not suffer the same fate as the failures who have gone before us. This naive ignorance makes it almost impossible for us to take in advice that in hindsight is so ridiculously obvious, but at the time just sounds like a cliché.

I liken this ignorance to the way people talk about having children. When you talk to someone who has kids, they tell you lots of things about how it changes your life, things are never the same, how hard it is to deal with sleep deprivation, and so on. And for the person without kids, they’ll never actually understand this until they have kids themselves. Then they are the ones rolling out the clichés. It’s the same with founders. You can’t understand the struggles until you go through them yourself.

Gracefully, I think the children analogy also applies to startups in a more positive way. Doting parents will always tell you about that feeling of being a parent — the sense of unconditional love and joy you get from your baby. It’s truly amazing but completely impossible to understand until you experience it yourself.

I believe there is a similar positive you extract from running a startup, even one that eventually fails. The euphoria from the highs, the adrenaline from the thrill of the chase. The joy from seeing other people use and love something you’ve built, and showing you how much with their hard earned cash. Above all the learning and knowledge you gain — not just about running a business and building a product, but about yourself and what you want from life.

What’s also intriguing about this circle of advice is that so often we founders actively go out seeking it, but then completely ignore it. We’ll call up founders of successful companies asking for their feedback. We’ll send an email to someone we admire asking if we can buy them a coffee. Then when we meet, we’ll pitch them our idea and ask wide-scoped questions and request very general feedback. This is a complete and utter waste of everyone’s time.

Why do founders do this?

  1. We’re looking for validation. We want someone successful to make us feel better by telling us that we have a great idea.
  2. We want the secret sauce. The silver bullet. That imaginary one thing we need to know that will help us be successful.
  3. Often, we just want money but feel the need to disguise the conversation under the illusion of needing advice. Investors are partially to blame for this as often this is the only way of getting in front of them.
  4. We’re afraid of failure. If we ask for something specific, there’s a chance they’ll tell us we’re doing it wrong and are going to fail. If we just ask for feedback on an idea, if they shoot it down we can just write it off as them not understanding it — they just don’t get it.
  5. It’s what everyone tells us to do. I firmly believe that there is a startup industry — a collection of companies, events, investors, government agencies and other organisations that are actively profiting off the culture of startups. There’s always someone else you should meet or talk to. Someone else you should pitch your idea to. Some bullshit startup competition or event you should take part in. Some advisor you should bring on board. The good ones will give you the hard truth. The others will keep you on the long finger and tell you what you want to hear, just in case one day you actually make it.
  6. We seem to have this notion that there is a prescribed process to building a startup. It varies, of course, but typically we have this perfect dream that it goes along the lines of:
    have idea => find co-founder => seek out advice and mentors => build first version of product => raise money => launch => hire a team => raise more money => grow => sell for billions. 
    We seek out advice because we think we have to, it’s part of the process.
  7. It’s fills our calendars. Often we try to make ourselves busy so we feel more important. Meeting important people feels important to us.

It’s not until it’s too late that we realise that the only validation that matters lies in the target market for our product or service. Instead of worrying about a future strategy for how to get out and get customers, we should have been just going out and getting customers.

As someone who is about to graduate from first-time founder status and work on his second company, I find myself reflecting a lot on what I’ve learned. One of the things that’s most valuable is that I’ve learned to recognise good advice when I see it. I’ve learned who to listen to, and who not to listen to. More importantly, I now know that above all else it’s important to know how to put good advice into context.

Experienced founders, successful business people, investors and other people have a lot of wisdom to offer. This time around, when I meet these people, I’ll be armed with a list of specific, pertinent questions that help me achieve success or recognise when I’m failing. Because now I know.

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