I don't have all the answers. No one does.
Your best advisor doesn't have all the answers. The best VC on Sand Hill Road doesn't have all the answers. The best founder doesn't have all the answers. That's why startups are so tricky...every straight-forward problem has been solved. So what's left (by design) is never completely known by a single person or team. Maybe, at best, someone starts by knowing a small part of the answer.
Having said this, there's a very common trait that I see in the best founders...they are incredibly curious and creative as they are working through product-market fit in the early days. One of the main ways they do this is by seeking-out and discussing their idea with experienced founders and people with heavy domain experience in their area.
What I typically do (and this habit is shared by all of the best founders that I know) is to discuss new ideas that I have with 5-10 (mostly local) founders who are friends with a track-record of success.
Talking with this group forces me to package the idea in a digestible way and (more importantly) it gives these trusted advisors the chance to tell me the one or two reasons why they think that this idea will be difficult to implement. Said another way, they'll tell me why it doesn't exist yet in the world. This might sound like negative feedback, but it's the best possible feedback a founder can receive because having the key points of friction allows me to then focus my limited efforts on solving those issues.
In this light, new startup ideas at the very start are mostly about identifying the main one or two reasons why this problem hasn't been solved before...the main customer frictions.
I helped start a local startup community in Atlanta and this is were I dedicate myself full-time. This vantage point (seeing hundreds of founders and hundreds of startups) has caused me to realize how rare it is for first-time founders to act in this way. Then I heard this podcast - one that I've never blogged about before - and decided it was a good topic to dive deeper.
Here's why I think first-time founders don't actively seek & heed advice from experienced founders...
1) Being generally active daily feels good (the topic of this podcast). This podcast caught my attention when they pointed-out that people in unstructured environments (like starting a startup) often create your own plans and systems where they control the outcome. This gives someone 100% control in feeling good when they finish their self-proclaimed "most important" tasks. These tasks become the focus of daily/weekly/monthly activity and push out tasks that are actually more likely to cause the startup to be successful.
2) Delusion. This term is often used negatively, but in the startup world I consider it a positive because only delusional people quit their day jobs to pursue something with a 1% chance of success. Staring a startup might seem different from being selected to sing on Broadway or moving to Los Angeles and getting a role in a movie, but the odds a similar. However sometimes this "screw what everyone else says" attitude goes too far and causes founders to even avoid good counsel.
3) Ego. Startup ideas are personal. Often plans that the founder has been making for years. Anyone criticizing their idea is taken as a personal attack.
4) What if the dream dies? Related to #3 (ego), a startup idea is sometimes like an antique that someone has holed-up in their attic. The dream is that it's worth millions of dollars, but likely it's not worth anything. Sometimes founders don't want to give up that dream. This topic is discussed at minute 28:37 in this podcast.
5) Lack of role models. In less mature startup towns (like mine...Atlanta) there's just aren't many people who have written an idea on a napkin and gotten it to millions of dollars in revenue. Do your best to be around these folks.
6) Noise. Startups are very popular right now. This means that there are lots of people with interest and some knowledge (mostly from reading online), but little experience. For a 25 year old first-time founder it's often difficult to tell the difference. By way of example, let's take two people. One is a young person who started in customer support at a high growth startup and then began to successfully running their marketing group. The other is a much older, more experienced VP of Marketing at a large company. Most times a first-time founder would prefer the VP of Marketing as their adviser. They must be great, right? That big company made them a VP and they are paid a big salary. This couldn't be further from the truth. That VP of Marketing was handed a successful business to market, a brand and a budget. You won't have any of those advantages with your startup, so that VP of Marketing has no real marketing value for you...they've never done anything related to startup marketing. The more junior person - who actually built a brand and acquired customers with limited resources - is usually the much better choice.
7) Advice might be wrong. Related to #6 (noise), many first-time founders are given bad advice from various people over time, so they chalk-up all advice as bad. As I said at the top, no one person - no matter how experienced they are - will have all the answers. Even the best founders are wrong more than they are right, but their pattern matching abilities are good. So this doesn't excuse first-time founders from increasing their odds of success by surrounding themselves with 5-10 experienced founders.
Startups are difficult, confusing, messy and very likely to fail. Because of these odds, anyone truly interested in launching a successful business should surround themselves with as many experienced founders as possible and talk with them regularly.
This is one of the few things that you can do to truly increase your odds of success if you are starting something new.
Sidenote: Here's a great blog post about giving advice to founders.
And if you are particularly interested in this topic, here are all my blog posts tagged “execution."
Get Right to the Lesson
I’d recommend listening to the entire thing, but to get right to the point go to minute 00:49 of this podcast.
Thanks to these folks for helping us all learn faster
Optimal Living Daily (@OLDPodcast)
Please let me and others know what you think about this topic
Email me privately at email@example.com or let's discuss publicly at @davempayne.