6 tips to get through the first year of your startup
This time last year, the second company I started and my first tech startup, began to fail. We reached the end of our financial runway and couldn’t quite pull together all the investment we needed to give a proper run at making it work. So after a few hectic meetings with the team, our customers, and our investors, we decided to close our startup down.
After some time mulling over the experience of running a startup for 18 months, growing the team, launching products, raising money, and dealing with burnout, I thought now would be a good time to share what I learnt from the overall experience. And hopefully help you avoid some of the mistakes we made.
Be hungry and willing to learn every single day
Being a founder means you don’t really have a job title. No matter if you’re the CEO, CTO, COO or any other title, you need to do literally everything, no matter your background, and be able to do it well. If you’re a designer, you’ll need to learn how to sell to customers then provide them customer support. If you’re a front end developer, you’ll need to be ready to learn to code full stack and do the company accounts. If you’ve worked in marketing, you’ll need to be ready to land partnership deals and run the user community. If you’ve worked in Biz Dev you’ll need to write financial forecasts and find office space.
You aren’t just the founding team, you’re covering every single role of a company between yourselves. Be ready to get your hands dirty, learning totally new skills and doing repetitive menial tasks on a daily basis. As a CEO you need to be just as great at queuing up your companies twitter feed, as you are pitching for investment.
Know how to design, build and launch product
You’re founding team should be able to build, launch and run your MVP for at least the first 6-12 months of your companies existence. We couldn’t, and it almost killed us.
When the founding team decides to quit their jobs and commit to your startup for full time, you need to ensure that, as a team, you’ll be able to cover all the skills needed to launch. If this isn’t the case, you’ll instantly be reliant on external resource for design, development and marketing, hammering your burn rate every time you bring these people in to do jobs you really should be doing yourselves.
Make sure your team can cover the fundamentals of design (basic UI & UX is fine), development (front & backend) and marketing (performance and viral) to get your MVP live and in the hands of the first few 1000 customers. If you can’t cover these skills, I would suggest you think about who should, or shouldn’t be part of the founding team. Ideally you really want someone who has taken a product from idea to launch before.
Don’t make it perfect. Just make it work.
Stop building the product you quit your job to build, and instead build the product you can launch within 2 weeks. If you don’t do this, you’ll end up spending months building the wrong thing, guessing what your customers want, and ultimately wasting the time of the entire team. No matter how complex your product is, you will be able to build and launch something in a couple of weeks.
Email lists, landing pages, faked AI systems, hackey Wordpress sites, messenger bots and mailchip automation are all great ways to test your idea without writing much code at all. No startup has ever got their product right at the first launch, so stop trying. Launch something. Measuring everything. Iterate constantly. Learn incessantly.
Burnout is 100% real. Be emotionally prepared for it.
Once the excitement of closing investment or quitting your job to go full-time on your startup has worn off, stuff gets really hard. And I mean, really, really hard. Burnout, the trough of sorrow, depression, whatever you want to call it, it will happen at some point to you or one of your other founders. And you need to be ready for it. You’ve got to be there to have each other’s backs, giving each other time off when needed, and ensuring you all have the mental space and emotional capacity to deal with things when stuff inevitably goes wrong.
Founders cannot be passengers waiting for this to hit them, they have to be prepared for it to happen, and be a united front when it does. Talk to friends about the stuff you’re going through, chat to your partner about the vulnerabilities of starting something new, be open with your other founders about what’s on your mind. If possible, even have regular meetings with an Executive Coach or a Counsellor. I did, and it was one of the most useful things I’ve ever done.
Don’t expect to earn much money at all
You need to be ready and willing to wave goodbye to any sort of large salary and be ready to not save any money for a good few years. Startups are about risking everything for a big reward, so be prepared to earn <$50k per year, be willing to take a few months unpaid whilst waiting for investment to come in, and ensure you always priorities the salaries of your employees above your own.
If you’re not up for taking these risks, I would strongly suggest that founding a startup may not be for you. Investors are giving you money to build and launch a successful company, not for you to buy an iPhone X, a shiny new iMac Pro or for you to go on a 5* holiday to Greece. If you have a family, you need to be really careful before going into a new startup, as things will get financially challenging really quickly. Get your priories right, and make sure earning a lot of money fast, isn’t one of them.
It’s hard work. But it’s really rewarding.
One of the most satisfying things about a startup is the fact you’re literally building something from nothing. Crafting a new company from scratch and launching it to users is one of the hardest but most rewarding things anyone can ever do. It’s stressful, emotionally exhausting, financially draining and unceasingly challenging, however being pushed way beyond your limit will help you learn faster than any other experience out there. You’ll discover so much about yourself, your team and your industry, coming out of the experience a changed person (for the better hopefully!).
Once you commit to starting something new, make sure you go all in and put everything you have into it. That’s what your competitors will be doing, so make sure you’re doing the same. Be ready for the challenges, be prepared to learn from mistakes, and put things in place to ensure you and the team will be there to support each other when things get tough.
If you have any questions about running a startup, drop me a message on twitter @robjbye