Tech startup founders are a special kind of weirdo.
Starting any business is challenging, but wanting to build something totally new and unproven from scratch is an especially bold choice. As humans, we are idea-generating machines – most have a million ideas in the shower every morning – but actually going out on a limb and taking action to bring those things into reality, day after day places you in a different category.
I am that kind of weirdo and as an ex-founder I know first hand the challenges that that brings with it. These days, I’m in an extremely privileged position where I get to work with and speak to amazing founders everyday. Whilst I’m supportive and offer as much advice as I can, I also challenge them because I understand the value that brings too.
Last week we saw 14 North East and Tees Valley startups pitching in front of more than 80 people at a special event held with TechBlast in Newcastle. I was on the judging panel. To do that in front of a live audience as an early stage founder is an incredibly brave thing… I really appreciate it when people put themselves out there to share their ideas.
Any opportunity to explain your startup as clearly and quickly as possible and receive feedback can provide a massive opportunity for you to learn how your message is resonating with others and often, understand an area of your business that you didn’t think of before.
Quite often as a founder, you’re holding simultaneous ideas about what you’ve built to date and every iteration of where you think it could go in the future. Pitching your startup and being asked questions by different people can help you understand what you’re building and why on a whole new level. Sometimes you just need a different human to ask you the questions, you would have asked someone else.
But there’s a catch. You have to know who you’re talking to; what they’re interested in; and what their understanding is of the problem that you’re trying to solve. And you need them to ask you difficult questions. If you’re just getting really positive feedback, sometimes it’s because that person has no idea what you’re talking about! Be wary when someone tells you how brilliant your idea is and that you should ‘just go and do it’.
There are a lot of challenges in launching a business. Having a ‘can-do’ attitude should not mean ‘can-do-at-all-costs’… that’s when you find these horror stories of people re-mortgaging their house to finance an idea which no one cares about by the time they’ve gone to market. Find the people that will give you honest feedback to stress test your idea and de-risk your approach to building a business. When you are challenged, and you seek to learn the answers, that’s when the real learning comes.
You may have a big vision but you can’t build everything for everyone all at once: you need to work out what’s the most important problem you’re solving for your target audience, make a bet on how to solve that problem as quickly as possible and get feedback, repeat. You don’t have infinite resources. You don’t have infinite time. So you do need to focus. Not getting that good feedback means that founders can focus on the wrong things.
You should speak to your target customer, but not with the closed question of: ‘Do you want this – yes or no?’ Ask open-ended questions. And when you ask them for some sort of commitment – risk in terms of either reputation, time or money – that’s when you actually start to get the real interesting feedback. You really need to work out the smallest possible thing that you can build to test your assumptions. And that never stops if you want to continue to be relevant for your customers, so you should really get good at it from the start.
You also need to seek the right mentors at the right time who will give you the right advice. Do they understand the kind of business that you’re trying to build right now? It has to be specific in startups: their very nature gives them a different risk profile to an established business.
Advice is very personal. Any good mentor is going to give you advice from their own experience. So be mindful of what their experience is. Asking somebody that has built a service business for advice on building your product business, for example, isn’t going to be as effective because you will have to negotiate a different set of challenges. A C-suite executive that joined a business that’s already been established for 10 years and grew their revenue from 500 million to 1 billion, won’t necessarily be able to advise you on finding your first 20 customers.
Established businesses also often react at a different speed than early stage startups need to and have a different level of resources to throw at the problem.
Having those conversations with people that have been there and done it at the same stage that you are at now is crucial. That’s why accelerator programmes such as ours at Ignite surround founders with a number of different entrepreneurs-in-residence: they have experienced the problems that the teams are currently trying to solve in a variety of different ways. The teams can then look for the common themes when talking to them and work out which approach might work for their particular situation. They can make lots of tiny corrections and stay on the right path.
No single person will have all the answers for you – you’re treading a new path – but lots of interesting questions will help you see trouble ahead before you get there. Even weirdos need friends.
Ignite runs programmes to help founders launch and scale tech startups in the North East of England. Applications for the second cohort of Ignite’s new Launch Programme will be opening up in January – interested companies can apply here.
Ignite is supported by North of Tyne Combined Authority and Barclays Eagle Labs.