Dear Startup Genius: Choosing Co-Founders, Burning Out Employees, and Lean vs. Fat Startups
This is the debut installment of our new advice column "Dear Startup Genius," penned by an anonymous but highly successful entrepreneur and investor in Silicon Valley, who will be brutally honest with you on Fridays.
Dear Startup Genius-
I've been working on an idea for a mobile app and I am finally ready to take the plunge, quit my job, and pursue it full time. Investors keep telling me that I need a great cofounder. Two people I've worked with in the past have both expressed interest in cofounding the company with me, but I'm concerned about both dynamics.
One is very combative and is the person who will always make me question my instincts. That can be great, but also exhausting. I feel like he could make the company better, but make my life worse in the process. The other is always in agreement with me. Starting a company with him would be easier, but I might have blind spots. Both have offered to help bootstrap itwith me.
I feel rude for not eagerly accepting, but this is a big step for me and Iwant to make the right one. Should I take one or the other? Both? Neither?
- Torn Dear Torn,
As they say at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (soon to be sold to Eurodisney and converted into a disco), the starting point must be "Know Thyself." Why do investors keep telling you you need a great cofounder? What's wrong with you? Or, more specifically, what skills do you have, and what skills are you lacking?
I'll guess that you're technical. (If you're not, you are probably way better off staying at your current job, as opposed to trying to land a technical cofounder. Some things are better left to the professionals.)
If you are technical, then the real question is, are you going to be the technical founder/CEO who is going to lead the company in the charge up the hill, or are you more appropriately the founder/CTO who can build the product but needs a partner to build and run the company? If the former, then pick the guy who goes along to get along -- a chief needs Indians. If the latter, I'd incline towards the strong personality -- running a company is no job for a wimp.
Dear Startup Genius-
I've got 99 problems and a startup is one. To be specific, I seem to have a tendency of burning employees out, and am told by a former employee that a single hour of work for me is more stressful than a nine hour day with his current employer (Northrup Grumman). A number of others have also reacted poorly to what they describe as being very stressed.
However, I'm not entirely sure why. The pay and benefits are generous, I allow flexible work schedules and have yet to deny a request for vacation. On top of it, despite being ultimately responsible for everything within the company, even at the worst of times I do not personally feel stressed, and I'm beginning to see it as a personality flaw rather than a strength.
A little bit of background -- I, and most of my employees, are currently students at one of those prestigious technical institutions. Currently a major purpose of the company is merely to pay my tuition (which it has done successfully for two years now), but I would like to believe that it has a future beyond that. However, if I cannot prevent employees from working themselves into a state where they can no longer work, then it obviously does not.
Is this a problem that will go away when my employees are no longer mostly students, or is there something I can do to fix it now? I'd rather believe that this is 1. my fault and 2. fixable.
- Calm in Chicago Dear Calm-
I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is that this is (1) your fault and (2) fixable. The bad news is that you're an asshole.
I don't mean that personally -- you sound like a great person to me, and I'm sure I'd love having a drink with you. Rather, I mean that objectively -- if employees are teling you that an hour of work for you is more stressful than a nine hour day at Evil Missiles and Fighter Jets Inc., there's something wrong with you.
The tipoff is that you went from "I'm not sure why" directly to compensation, benefits, and vacation policy. The reality of life at a startup -- or at any other productive workplace -- is that most people aren't there for the pay and vacation time; they're there to do interesting and meaningful work in a supportive environment with smart colleagues and enlightened management. Salary, benefits, and vacation policy are the baseline ante -- but you could double everyone's pay, and it wouldn't affect the problem you and your employees are having.
So what I'd do is bear down on the total experience of what it's like to work for you. In particular, I'd focus in on goal setting -- it sounds like you might be setting goals too high and then micromanaging (what we in the Valley call the Zynga Syndrome).
Finally, there is no substitute for lifting people up by giving them a higher mission beyond simply "make money" or in your case "pay the boss's tuition." What is the larger purpose to what your company is doing? How are you making the world a better place? An awful lot of great people tolerated a cosmic level of personal abuse from Mr. Jobs for many years, because they knew they were doing the best work of their lives at Apple -- and, as Steve would say, "making a ding in the universe."
Dear Startup Genius-
I have read a lot about lean startups, and many of the concepts are great. But the market I am working in is different and unique (Africa). If you try to follow all the principles to the letter, you probably won't see results. One thing is for sure, you have to be very patient, since most of the time you are changing behavior. So I ask, is it right for a consumer Internet startup to obsess over business models without proof of any traction. I mean, what is the point? If you don't get users, your model wont be of much use. So what do you suggest? Should someone concentrate on getting traction?
- Confused Dear Confused-
The bad news is that I don't have a concrete answer. The good news is that your instincts are correct that there are no general formulas that will give you concrete answers -- the answers will be very specific to the particular circumstances of your startup.
Let me start by saying that I am enormously proud of the founders of the new science of startups -- Eric Reis ("lean startups"), Steve Blank ("customer development process"), and Mark Leslie ("sales force learning curve"). They are collectively creating a theoretical science of how to build startups where one did not previously exist -- back in my day, all you could do when you needed help in figuring out what to do was consult either chicken entrails or venture capitalists, which were roughly equivalent in helpfulness.
But the problem is that startup science is a new science, which is to say it's not yet really a science -- all we have is a set of frameworks and theories that sometimes apply and sometimes don't. And at worst, something like the "lean startup" methodology is actively misleading -- the dirty little secret is that each of the major startup methodologies is a reaction by its creator to the experience that he had at his last company.
Eric Reis's lean startup approach would have made Imvu a better company; Steve Blank is trying to solve for what went wrong with Epiphany; Mark Leslie wishes he could do Veritas over again. So, if you're literally building the next Imvu, Epiphany, or Veritas, you're all set. If, however, you're on the ground in Africa trying to make something work, you probably are going to have to come up with a lot of your own answers.
Trust your gut... Take from "lean startup" theory whatever seems useful, and then do what's right for you and your startup.
This column runs weekly, when Startup Genius actually meets his/her deadline. Send your questions, concerns, and problems to DearStartupGenius(at)PandoDaily.com.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]