Advice for startups: Never stop learning

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts describing the lessons I’ve learned from founding a failed startup and meeting with different people across Silicon Valley.

starup Advice for startups: Never stop learning

After leaving Fancite, I spent a month reevaluating what I wanted to do and planning my next move.  I met with some really interesting and passionate people.  I also met with entrepreneurs who were having a tough time getting their projects off the ground.

Founder to founder

I met with a friend who has been working on his own startup for almost two years.  We met so I could share with him what I learned from Fancite and why I decided to leave.  About halfway through the conversation, we started talking about his own experience and his inability to get solid traction.  The number one reason he felt he was struggling was that he didn’t have a solid and steady technical co-founder.  The discussion morphed into him attempting to recruit me to fill the void at his company.

He was able to build a solid prototype of his product through contractors and flaky engineers but needed a technical co-founder to iterate on it, which made sense.  I then asked, “Have you considered learning to build your own product?”  To my shock, he told me he never truly considered it.  He told me he was busting his ass getting investor meetings  and partnerships lined up.  He was focused on marketing and business development, he said, and just needed the damn thing to be built.  He was so passionate and determined to make it work, but I guess not enough to learn how to build his product and iterate on it himself.

Invest in yourself

A rule for getting rich is getting smart. Investing your time in yourself and becoming knowledgeable about the business of something you really love to do.

– Mark Cuban

In a startup, you should never stop learning.  The moment you stop learning, you and your fledgling business are in trouble.  Starting your own company means being pushed beyond your natural comfort zone, and that requires confidence in your potential.  Part of the reason there is so much excitement surrounding startups is because the people involved in them tend to do incredible things that they believed in but truly didn’t know were possible.

My friend had the wrong mindset for execution.  He refused to believe that he could learn how to build his dream by himself.  He never even considered it.  Instead, he believed he needed someone else to make it a reality.  With the vast amount of resources and support at his disposal, not to mention all the stories of non-techies who had achieved their dreams without a technical co-founder, he should have gone outside of his own comfort zone and learned what it takes to implement and iterate on his product.  Even if engineering isn’t right for you (and it isn’t for everyone), trying and learning that it isn’t for you still gives you a better grasp of what you want to build and how to do it.  If you’re leading a company, you need to know the technical nitty-gritty of what you do.  And yes, Steve Jobs was technical.

The same is true for technical co-founders.  They need to be pushed past their limits, and while they generally are technically, it’s incredibly important to stay hungry on the non-technical side, too.  Everything from business development to marketing and distribution to operations to execution is critical and will make or break a startup.  A technical co-founder only concerned about his or her own layer of abstraction is a huge red flag.

Hacker + hustler + designer ≠ success

The whole notion that a successful team consists of a hacker, a hustler, and a designer is flawed (we had those people at Fancite).  In my short time dealing with startups, I’ve learned there is a higher chance of success when co-founders’ roles are blurred.  Of course, it’s important to focus on what you’re good at (engineering, marketing, design, etc.), but co-founders shouldn’t be afraid to branch out and enter a team member’s domain, either.  I’ve know how easy it is to stay in your comfort zone as a co-founder.  But this has a negative impact on communication between team members and can impede how fast your company moves.  It takes a conscious effort to be a perfect team.

My plea: Never stop learning

Going back to the conversation I had with my friend, the reason I never considered joining his startup as a technical co-founder is because he set his company creed (inadvertently, no doubt) to something I don’t agree with.  The number one thing I look for in a startup is a culture of learning and curiosity. I’m put off by boxed-in environments where roles are strictly defined.

I truly believe that a company creed is something that evolves over time and can be changed with a conscious effort. I would have been more interested in my friend’s startup had he simply told me he was willing to learn how to code.  That would have told me that he’s willing to take any step necessary to make his vision a reality.  Still, I wish him all the best, and I hope my perspective helps him and others on their journey.

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