Startup Tips

Don’t Take Startup Advice... & Other Startup Advice

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.

Will the Pipeline Really Bridge the Gender Gap in Tech?

The “gender gap,” or disproportionality of men to women in technical professions, is always a common thread in Silicon Valley.

Despite the rise of tech idols such as Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Marissa Mayer of Yahoo!, Silicon Valley is still largely seen as a man's world. The American Association of University Women reports that:

  • Women made up only 26% of computing professionals in 2013 (which hasn’t moved the needle since the 1960s)
  • Women made up only 12% of engineers in 2013

Universities, coding bootcamps, and primary education have been working hard to encourage girls to become interested in math and science at an earlier age. The idea is that more of these female students will decide to major in a STEM field, resulting in a more diverse workforce with a narrower gender gap in a few years.  This is the concept of the “pipeline”, or fixing tech gender representation by funneling a more diverse student group into tech companies.

women-stem_0.png

Hackathon Hackers, with over 18,000 members, is the largest group on Facebook dedicated to attendees of Hackathons. Why? Because the best student programmers attend hackathons, and Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and the rest are jockeying to employ them. Thus, this Facebook group is the best compilation of data on the active involvement of the tech pipeline. How gender is represented in this group will foretell how gender is represented in the tech industry in 3-8 years when these students graduate and go to work.

Megan Ruthven analyzed every post and comment since the birth of the Hackathon Hackers group to answer these.

To do this, she wrote code in python that analyzed all the pronouns in all the posts for male or female representation. For example, a post containing he, his, nephew, Dad, or brother would be male representative. A post containing she, her, niece, Mom, or sister would be female representative. The idea is that if a girl joins the group and sees only posts saying things like, “My brother just got hired at Apple because he and his bros made an awesome app,” then they might think this group was not for them. This measures not just female attendance in tech, but active participation. The results? The pipeline is no cure-all.

 

Q 1) Are Hackathon Hackers gender representation percentages better than industry?

Ruthven found that of all posts that contained gendered words, such as bro or she, only 13.7% contained female pronouns. To compare this to female representation in tech companies: 18% of Groupon’s tech workers are female, while Apple clocks in at 22% and Facebook at 16%. Hackathon Hackers, a snapshot of the tech pipeline, actually has a larger gender gap in their posts than tech companies today.

 

Q 2) Has gender representation changed over time in Hackathon Hackers?

Ruthven took a three month average of female representative posts and found that there was actually no trend up or down. Which means that the amount of content that represents women posted in the group isn’t getting worse, but not better either.

So what does this mean for the tech pipeline and the future for the gender gap in tech? Although many authorities have faith in the tech pipeline bridging the gender gap in tech, because the numbers of women enrolled in technical degrees has risen, data from the largest Facebook group representing the pipeline has shown otherwise.

 

How should the gender gap in the tech industry be addressed if the pipeline isn’t improving? Read the full story by Megan Ruthven here.

 

A 101 for anyone interested in VC

As tweet-stormed by Entrepreneur and Angel Investor, Tyler Willis.


Q: If you were starting as a first-time VC tomorrow - what should you read consistently to improve your thinking & analysis?

Check out the tweet-storm originally located here.

Online Learning: 4 Tips for Staying on Track

February 18, 2014 – The beauty and curse of online learning is that you get to set your own schedule (for the most part). This being the case, it can be easy to fall behind. Draper University Online asks for a lot of your time and energy - over and above what you put into other major life commitments. Draper University OnlineWhen it comes down to it, this is what starting a business will be like. Whether you choose to start your business on the side while you're still employed or take the leap and start full speed ahead, tasks will inevitably pile up faster than you have time to do them. Your experience with online learning in Draper University Online is a great opportunity to practice effective time-management, and we thought we'd get you started with a few pointers:

1. Set deadlines for yourself

It sounds like a no-brainer, but creating systems for yourself is probably the most effective way to keep on track. Write tasks down in your calendar and you'll be much more likely to finish them. Take time this week to plan ahead by carving out blocks in your schedule for your coursework.

Also, feel free to create your own events in the Calendar section of the site. This will be especially helpful for coordinating group activities like this week's virtual business plan meeting.

2. Split big projects into smaller tasks

The biggest projects are often the most daunting. Splitting them into smaller, more manageable pieces will make it easier to get started.

Take, for example, your Rube Goldberg assignment from Creativity. Instead of trying to attack this in one sitting, try splitting it into three separate 15-20 minute tasks: research and planning, gathering materials, and assembling, for example.

3. Make your online learning social

Make a point to engage your classmates, friends, and family about the content and work you encounter over the course of the program. Did one of the speakers blow your mind? Were you surprised by something you read in one of the reading assignments? The best way to deepen your understanding of new content is often to discuss it with others - plus, it can make for great dinner conversation!

Turn assignments like Painting into group activities: invite friends over to paint self-portraits and watch one of the recommended movies together (more great dinner conversation!).

4. Have fun with it!

At Draper University, we believe that online learning can and should be a good time! Starting a company takes a lot of work, so the ability to find an element of fun in every task at hand will make a huge difference in your ability to endure the hard times and make the best of the good times.