Don’t take startup advice- that is, except for this.
Jolijt Tamanaha gleaned 7 key lessons from her first founder flop with her startup, Champio. Founders often make great bloggers- when it comes to their successes. Google “How to Get Into 500 Startups” or “How to Close a Series A” and thousands of blog posts from accomplished founders celebrating their wins will pop up, but a search for “Founder Mistakes” often yields cold articles written by tech journalists instead of the failed founders themselves.
Jolijt was a student in St. Louis with a moderately successful startup, Farmplicity, before she started Champio. Jolijt is not a glamorous or wildly successful entrepreneur with a huge track record. She is probably much like you, a young entrepreneur with some good experience under her belt. Her startup Champio is probably much like yours, as an early stage pre-funding company with a beta out. Her advice hits spot on for the vast majority of entrepreneurs out there who aren’t employing staffs of 100 or mamanging cash-flows of millions of dollars. Here are her takeaways summarized below- but please, read her full article on Medium here.
1. Solicit a ton of advice & actively ignore most of it
Getting advice from a trusted source is always important- but not because it should be followed. Tamanha writes that advice is “an opportunity to learn about approaches to the problem that you might otherwise not know exist. Never, ever turn to a source of advice in search of an answer. Nobody can give you an answer because nobody has successfully done exactly what you’re trying to do”.
2. Time is King
Instead of instantly committing full time to your idea, Tamanha advises that first an entrepreneur should work part time or come up with some way to provide for themselves as they find product market fit. Unless the entrepreneur has a track record of acquisition then VCs won’t fund a product without a validated market. Ways to do this could be to “work on your startup as a side project while you grow in a full-time position or as a student. Set up sources of passive income that give you a small salary. Charge customers from Day 1. If that’s not possible, start the company as a consulting practice while you finish building whatever it is you need to execute on your main business model”.
3. Focus on the numbers
She cautions to avoid getting caught up in customers, advisors, or authority figures bolstering your product with statements that lack commitment. Numbers, like user adoption, activity, and payments tell the real story about product market fit, because “even complete strangers on the subway will tell you what you want to hear”. Numbers don’t lie.
4. Hire for challenge-fit
Building a dream team is one of the hardest things out there; without the right team the right product can’t be built. But often hiring decisions are made based on credentials, past experience, or connections the candidate has. Employers rarely screen for attitude, and particularly the type of attitude that is necessary for an early stage startup. Tamanha’s “early stage team needs to be in it because easy things bore them. You will be hit by challenge after challenge and when that happens, you need a team that gets excited. They should to look at you, smile, and say: “let’s figure out how to solve this.” Build a team energized by difficulties and you’ve won half the battle”.
5. Celebrate small successes with Champagne*
Many entrepreneurs have a drive-it-forward attitude that can make it difficult to celebrate the small things. As Tamanha writes, “People need to be celebrated. And not celebrated in my improve-some-more-stuff way but just celebrated. With Champagne or at least a cookie.”
5. Stop trying to draw a straight line
The ideate-prototype-test-build-scale model for startups is ubiquitous, but everyone shouldn’t get hung up in finding that perfect J-curve exponential growth model. Most startups are all over the place in the beginning, and that’s a good thing. Jolijt assuages, “I am telling you not to give up just because the path doesn’t look like what you had imagined it would when you started going down it. Straight lines exist for lawyers and bankers and TechCrunch journalists, not entrepreneurs. Do what it takes to make the next dot appear, and the dots will eventually connect themselves”.
6. Don’t take blind risks
Since entrepreneurs characteristically do well under pressure, often last ditch efforts to buy time or cobble together funding can actually be mildly successful. But the point isn’t to buy another few weeks- it’s to maintain that long term vision that the startup was founded on. Sometimes it’s better to take a step back rather than take the money, especially if there is more desperation than data behind your decision. Tamanha concludes with, “I can’t take an informed risk right now. I don’t need to see a straight line but I need to see the next step, the next dot. The money from family and friends will get us 10 months of runway if I’m the only one working on Champio. And if I’m the only one working on Champio, I don’t see a next dot”.
It’s better to refuse the money if you have no clear exit for your investors. They will recognize your honesty and come back later when you’re ready. To be clear, this isn’t Jolijt giving up. She is still working on Champio, just also taking a normal job as well. She hasn’t given up, and hopes the same for every other aspiring entrepreneur out there.