Michael and I both became our own bosses on January 11th when we started our own business. Being a boss has its ups and downs. Lots of responsibilities but also lots of freedom. I think there is one major pro and one major con to being your own boss, and they are the same thing.
You control your own destiny.
As hard and smart as you work will be as far as you go. There are other factors, and you will need a little luck, but most things are in your control.
You control your own destiny.
If you need some downtime (like a vacation), it will impact your job and output. Your livelihood is at stake and that can be a scary thing (which in turn might make you run yourself into the ground over-working yourself).
The best and worst thing about starting and running your own business (with no employees) is just the different side of the same coin.
It is common to call the monthly progress of a startup the heartbeat of your company. What this means is that every month you want that “beep boop” sound that continues to push your product/mission/vision forward.
Usually this consists of a combination of growth, new feature/product releases, press, and fundraising, some public and some private. For Michael and I at SocialRank, we are already working on some of the biggest features that brands have been asking for to release in the next few weeks.
Keeping that heartbeat drumming is paramount to your company and traction.
Anything you ever do publicly will lead people to give feedback, whether solicited or unsolicited. Feedback is great. It makes you better and stronger. But feedback can also slow you down and make you second guess everything you are doing.
I think there is a good balance of digesting feedback from a variety of people and trying to filter by the source of feedback. For example, there is a big difference between getting feedback from a paying customer and a friend or investor that thinks you should add X, Y, and Z.
There is a quote, I’m not sure from where, that goes something like ‘every startup founder should listen to everyone and no one at the same time.’ To me this means you should stick to your convictions about where to go with your business but listen to everyone and cherry-pick things you think will help it improve.
Last week I met a founder of an up and coming company. She had raised a small round of funding and was considering going out for a series A (or big seed) soon. The problem was that every investor she spoke with wanted her to go down a different path for the company. The founder wasn’t sure what to do about balancing what her vision was versus what the people that were going to give her money wanted.
I think this happens often in the early-stage company-building phase. Founders go the route of taking investor money and the investors need to obviously like the product AND vision. The problem here though is that if you ask 100 potential investors where they think the business should go, you’ll get 100 different answers (and rightfully so). Your goal as a founder is to build a company for your users, members, and customers, not for investors.
With investors you need to be able to prove to them that the direction you plan to take your business is the right one (by using data and the like). You may be tempted to follow everything they suggest to a T, but never mix up building a company for investors with building a company the way your actual customers/users/clients want it.
One of the best things I learned over the past five years working in the startup world was how to think. Learning how to think can be the difference between being successful and failing at your company.
There are three things I keep in mind in regards to learning how to think:
1) Ask a lot of questions
Asking questions helps you think and make decisions with more information. Only ask questions you can’t find yourself (i.e. by doing a simple google search).
2) Think about potential problems and proactively try to solve them before they arise
This is a recurring aspect to keep in mind. The best startup people anticipate problems before they come up and problem-solve so that they never become major issues (or if they do, they have a solution in place). The way to train yourself to get good at this is to map out (either on paper or in your mind) all the results you can think of about a certain scenario. For example, if you are about to launch a new product, besides figuring out how to execute the basics of the launch you ALSO need to think about unexpected scenarios you might get yourself into and figure out solutions for them.
3) Thinking correctly helps you avoid wasting time
This last one is what I see from first time founders who spend way too much time on things that aren’t important. It could be anything from spending countless time on business cards to pitching investors (before you have a product). Learning how to think correctly helps you avoid the time-suck of various un-important things one does at a startup and gets you focused on the right things.
The absolute worst thing you can do as a founder or as a member of a startup’s management team is think you can do everything. Unless a founder and their team have relentless focus on doing one thing really well they will not get enough traction to be successful.
How does a founder or the management team go down this path of trying to do too many things?
Well, it is usually a mix of a few things but all stem from the ‘shiny things disease’. This is the theory around distractions that arise at startups that take away your focus on what’s important (i.e. a big cool splashy name company reaches out because they want to do something with you but it will make you spend the next two months building custom features and delay your big new product that will bring on 10x usage/users).
Maybe you tell yourself and your team that you don’t want to bet all your money on one horse or put your eggs in one basket. You rationalize that putting pieces of your team on a bunch of things rather than everyone on one thing will let you have more to show at the next board meeting or when raising your next fundraising you’ll be able to show multiple use cases.
But this mindset will sink you because you don’t have infinite developer resources or personnel to devote to focusing on multiple initiatives AND do them well.
So how do you avoid the feeling that you can do everything?
Focus on one thing and do that one thing really well! The good part of the “worst thing you can do as a founder” is that it is usually easily fixable. It might not feel good to cut off companies/partners/features to focus on one thing but it is very necessary.
At Aviary, Avi the founder became the king of focusing on one thing. But he (and the company) didn’t start off that way. When I joined Aviary they had a suite of web-based editing tools and a website called Worth1000 (for photoshop contests). The tools were great but they weren’t in-line with the future of mobile and on-the-go, lightweight tools (i.e. the suite was flash based and web only). Long story short, Avi (and the board) made the executive decision to focus on one thing and do it well. The team rallied around building a light-weight photo editing API for web and mobile and the suite of tools and photoshop contest website became secondary products. As the API began to gain traction the team slowly shut down the other products (even with a ton of users and usage). Flash-forward to this year and Worth1000 was sold off, Aviary heavy tools are, I believe, being worked on by a different team and Aviary the company and API have 75 million MAUs.
So as you can clearly see, it is very possible to right the ship even if you first struggle with the worst thing you can do as a founder.
Everyone wants help. But not everyone knows how to get it.
I think most people in the world want to be helpful to others. The problem is that it is always easier to be unhelpful than helpful. This is why it’s important to figure out exactly how to make helping you the easiest thing possible for the other person.
This means if you are looking for an introduction to a potential partner, investor, or something else you need to give that person an easy forward-able email so they can get the green light from the person you want to be connected with.
The same goes with helping you get a job, networking in a new industry, or anything else that involves getting people to help you. Spell out every step for the other side to make it as easy as clicking a button to help.
Cut out all the barriers that would hinder someone from helping you and you’ll be surprised how many people respond positively to requests for help.
h/t to Nicola (an email thread with her inspired this post)
It is very hard to build a successful satellite office. While technology is getting better there are still tons of internet/bandwidth problems when it comes to communicating with multiple offices (i.e. Skype, hangouts are delayed or buggy). I’ve run a satellite office for two companies now and while I definitely got better as time went on, it was still very hard to move at startup speed when decision makers are all across the country or world. If you do need to have a satellite office, here a few tips to make it work.
Tip #1 Over-communicate
One of the things I didn’t do that well when I was the only employee in the US for Media/And and made sure to improve when I joined Dwolla, was to over-communicate with my superiors. This meant having a shared document with our COO and writing up all meeting summaries on a daily basis. This was a lot of work but it allowed my superiors the ability to know what was up.
In BD and Partnerships things take time early on. You need to talk to prospective partners, understand their needs. Maybe you have what they want/need. Maybe you don’t. If you do, great, deals might happen quickly. If you don’t, you need to go back and build it. Then deals will begin to come in. Long story short, it is very easy for your superiors to think you aren’t making progress early on, so over-communicate as much as possible to show them that you are.
Tip #2 Have A Full Team At Each Location
If you are going to have a remote team, make sure you have a complete team at the location. This allows you to move a lot quicker than if you have pieces of your specific team (i.e. API team, Design team, etc.) spread out.
Tip #3 Travel To HQ Often
Building a company is sort of like building an army. If you want to build a good team, you need to spend copious amounts of time with the team to build a deep bond. This is why if you are a remote team member, you need to travel to the mothership for a minimum of a week every 6 weeks. It doesn’t matter what your role is at your company; spending that time in the trenches with your teammates is priceless.
One last thought: Now that I’m a founder, I think I will be very hesitant to add any satellite members to our team for a long time. It’s not that it never works, it is more that it makes your job harder, and with all the difficult things that come with startups this just stacks another odd against you.
There are the lovers. There are the haters. Then there are the ignorers.
Lovers are great. Haters can hurt. But ignorers, these are the worst.
What is an “ignorer?”
Before defining an ignorer let’s define the lovers and haters in this context. A lover is someone who shows love to you and your business. They share, like, fave, retweet, pin your posts. They are your fans and express their love publicly.
The haters on the other hand also share your stuff, or at least comment on it publicly but the tone is negative and they hate on it. While haters can make people uncomfortable they are better than the ignorers, because at least they make people have an emotional response to what they are doing.
The ignorers are the third bucket and they are people who ignore what you are doing. It could be when you want a reporter to cover you, a potential investor to meet with you, want to recruit a phenomenal iOS developer. The ignorers are the worst because they make you feel like you don’t matter. They don’t even hate on you, they don’t feel any emotion towards you and that sucks.
This is why, I believe, some people purposefully try to get people to hate them and their companies, because it is a lot easier to deal with haters than ignorers (think of someone you hated in a TV show, like Sawyer from LOST- in the first season you hated Sawyer, but by the end of the show he was everyone’s favorite character).
There is only one solution for turning ignorers into lovers or haters and that is to build something that makes them notice you. If you build something that makes them have an emotional reaction, you win.
This past week I caught up with a friend who happens to be a Thiel Fellow. We got to talking about how using your situation (whether it is being a Thiel Fellow, a college student, or something else) to get in front of someone is an important thing for people to learn.
We joked that no one is going to turn down an introduction to a Thiel Fellow. It’s an unbelievable vehicle to leverage.
For me, I’ve always used my “situation,” whatever that may be, to get in front of the people I wanted to. In college, I used the student angle to get meetings or introductions to people I wanted to know or talk to. When I interned at Viacom/MTV Networks, I used that situation to look up executives at CBS, Paramount, MTV, VH1, Comedy Central, and other subsidiaries to ask for meetings while I was there, to pick their brains, and make lasting connections.
The same situation at Aviary and Dwolla. Being a venture backed startup gives you the opportunity to have some legitimacy behind who you are and what you are working on. It’s a lot easier asking/getting an introduction when you are person X, from company Y that has $Z in venture funding from big investors- rather than person X, solo, looking to get connected.
So figure out what your situation is and use whatever it is to get in front of people you want to know.
Part of unspoken agreements at startup companies is that employees will be taking on multiple roles in the organization as the company grows. With limited financing and resources employees are expected to do their job, plus other functions that they might not know anything about.
If you don’t pick up the slack when needed, you may not be around for long. Startups aren’t easy and this is one of the more daunting concepts around working at a startup. You’ll definitely be pushed in uncomfortable directions and might not know how to respond.
Here are a few tips on how to tackle that new role that is being thrown at you on top of your existing responsibilities:
1) Read + Learn about the new responsibilities. If you do BD and need to learn marketing best practices pick up a book or head over to the countless marketing expert blogs (ask around to find out who is good and who is all noise) and dig in.
2) Bring in an expert. Whatever the skill set is, ask management or your investors to help conquer the beast that is the new thing you are needing to tackle. If it is paid advertising and you have no idea what is left and what is right it’s your responsibility to ask for help.
3) Know yourself and at a certain point if you have so much to do that you can’t even do your own job talk to your boss and put it all out there. You may need to hire someone to fill that role.
4) Go work at a different (bigger) company. Less potential reward, but more stability and hey if you are good, you can move up in the ranks and make a good salary/career out if it. Some people realize they are not right for the startup life at this point. It’s a hard lifestyle to maintain.
Hope this is helpful!
Internships are important. I think the most important thing internships help with is figuring out what you don’t want to do with your life. At least that’s the experience I’ve had. Startup internships, something I haven’t done, are especially helpful as you get to do many things and can figure out fairly quickly if you like this lifestyle or not.
Here are a few tips when looking for internships at startups:
1) Use Twitter and other online networks to connect with people. I see people tweeting out job opportunities daily and being on Twitter and other social entities helps you put yourself in a good position to get lucky and find an opportunity. For example: How About We is looking for a BD intern. Here is the job posting.
2) Find a company you want to work for and start doing the job before you get the job. Talk to as many people as you can find at the company or who know the current strategy of the company and figure out what you can do to add value to the team before even interviewing/getting fully in front of them. That’s one good way to impress a team and have them want to bring you on as an intern.
3) Ask every friend, family member, acquaintance, stranger, for leads. This obviously needs to be done in a strategic way, but you need to use everything and I mean everything at your disposal to land an internship. Having zero internships on your resume will bring up major red flags when you are looking for a full-time job.
It’s okay to try and get an internship by asking your network for help. It’s actually not just okay, it’s expected. It’s only people that never get anything accomplished are the ones looking at people with a “connection” to someone or something and say, “well they only got that because they knew the person.” Well of course they did. How does anyone get anything? Most people don’t hire strangers, there are too many question marks. You need to know people to get things. It’s just common sense.
Now that doesn’t mean you can’t meet the people you need to know by a) reaching out to them (now you aren’t a stranger anymore), b) getting front of them by any means necessary. Early on in my career I did some crazy stuff to get in front of people I wanted to know or be connected with (stuff you don’t share or post on your blog). But all of the stuff has paid off and I have a solid network of great people who I can depend on and who depend on me. Everyone has to start somewhere. Getting an internship and doing whatever it takes is a good place to start.
It is not always easy taking the next step in your career. Sometimes the next move is not clear. Other times going sideways can mean going up (ie former CEO of Burberry joining Apple). A lot of people struggle with career moves and how to handle them. It’s probably the thing I get asked about the most.
From my limited experience, if you are going to make a move, you always want to do it in a position of strength. This means that you are either in a good role (and for one reason or another you want to leave) or something good or big just happened. If you don’t need to move than you should wait for the terms you want to come before deciding you want to make the jump.
The other type of jump in your career is one within your organization. This could be getting a promotion or taking initiative and doing more than expected of you (which will probably lead to a promotion). I’ve gone through this when I was working at Aviary. We were a month away from a big product launch and my boss got sick so I led a lot of the pitching to line up launch partners. The launch ended up going very well and from then on I led most deals for the company.
Bottom line: Making the jump in your career is tough thing to do and there is usually no clear path. Try your best to put yourself in a position to get lucky (and have a good career) by doing the best you can at your current job. Whatever you are doing, do it at 110%.
Two weeks ago a 13 year old 8th grader from New Jersey emailed me to find a time to talk about startups. Impressed with the kid’s email, we set up a time to chat.
The kid is years ahead of his peers and I told him some things he could do to put himself in a really good position to be successful in the future.
The thing that I tried to hammer home though was the fact that he’s at a stage where he could take tons of risks and fail silently. He has absolutely zero expectations right now, no one is depending on him to put food on their table, and this is an opportune time to take the biggest risks.
This got me thinking about the amazing opportunities today’s youth have, especially while in college. For many young people (obviously not all) college is a place to party and waste time. But for a select few, college is a great opportunity to experiment and take risks (safe ones!). Starting a company has never been easier and during the four years of college is a great time to go for it.
Let me tell you, with what I now know, I wish I had my four years of college back.
"So you wanna be a rock superstar?
And live large, a big house, 5 cars, you’re in charge
Comin’ up in the world don’t trust no body
Gotta look over your shoulder constantly”
- (Rock) Superstar by Cypress Hill
At startups, the worst thing you can do is get too comfortable after a big announcement. Case in point, yesterday’s big Dwolla announcement. There is no room for complacency and your team needs to continue to work towards the next milestone, whatever that may be.
This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the win or you should jump to the next thing (sometimes the next thing is just continuing to make the present thing better and better). It just means you should continue to sleep with one eye open. Remember, the actual blood, sweat, and tears at startups happens behind the scenes and are not part of the splashy press announcement.
Bottom line: Don’t get too comfortable. Keep striving for better.