This guest post was written by Meebo CEO Seth Sternberg. It is the first in a series of posts he’s writing about the decisions a young entrepreneur needs to make when she/he is first starting a business. The timing is perfect, there is more than a little overlap with Vivek Wadhwa’s guest post on venture capital earlier today. We’ll update this post with links to his further installments.
I was one of those kids who just couldn’t stop trying to start a company. I think I just really feared working for the Man. Problem was, I seemed to suck at the whole startup thing. Multiple attempts followed by multiple failures. At some point I just said, “screw it, I’ll get a high paying job.” Problem was, I couldn’t stop thinking of the next great thing that got me ridiculously excited. Turns out, it wasn’t so much that I was the problem. Rather, I didn’t have anyone around me familiar enough with startups to tell me that I was doing it all wrong.
This is the first post in what’s going to be a series of blogs on how to go from nothing – no connections, no team, no money and no knowledge of how the startup industry really works – to operating a growing business. I mentioned to Mike that I was going to kick this series off over on the Meebo Blog, but he suggested I start it here. Gladly! So for this first post, here’s the best advice I can give you: join an awesome founding team and get your product out the door ASAP. Then, forget everything else, VCs included, and just build.
One of the things I do as a founder of a later stage startup is to meet with early stage entrepreneurs to help them get their companies going. Nine times out of ten, the meeting ends with them asking me for introductions to VCs. Little do they know that, even if they could raise VC, it’d start them down the wrong path. So, this is what I tell them:
At the exact moment you had your idea, ten other people had the exact same idea. There was just something in the environment that made it the right time for folks to think that one up. The race has already begun! Who’s going to execute first? Who’s going to execute best? If you want to waste nine months trying to raise VC money for that idea, great. But six months in, you’re gonna cry when you see someone else put out that same product you’re pitching me right now. Like I said, forget everything else and just get your product out the door. Now.
Inevitably, the excuses begin: I need to hire people to build the product. I don’t know any developers. I need money for the servers. I want to get that last promotion at my current company first!
Here’s the rub: in consumer internet (and often enterprise), if your founding team doesn’t have the chops to get a prototype of your product out and in the hands of a blogger to test and write about, you might as well save yourself a lot of pain – you’re not going anywhere. Need proof? Just look at some of the most successful tech companies in the last decade: eBay, YouTube, Sun, Oracle, Apple, Cisco, Facebook, Yahoo!, and Google. All of them share a couple common traits: they launched before taking outside investment, and they were able to do it because they had a set of founders with the skills to build the initial version of the product themselves. Only eBay was founded by a single individual – the rest were team efforts.
With that background, let’s get to the three most important things you can do to go from nothing to a kicking startup.
First and foremost, find a great founding team. One person is almost never enough. You just can’t do it all. Rather, team up with one or two other people who have skills synergistic – not overlapping – with your own, but with similar goals and passions. I can’t tell you how frequently teams of three business school students tell me they’re going to start the next great consumer Internet company. When I point out that they’re all business people, and wonder who’s going to build the product, they almost always fall back on “we’ll get a couple of undergrads to do it,” or, “we’ll outsource it.” If I hear either one of those, I know the startup’s already dead. Sorry, folks. Harsh, but probably true.
Second, like I said, forget everything else and just get your product out the door. No office. No phone system. No hiring. No press. No legal muck. No raising money. No looking for partnerships (who’s going to partner with you anyway?). The success or failure of the adoption of your product is what will create 99% of the initial value of your company. If no one ever uses your product, you have no value. Oh, and for the record, raising VC does not help get traction – in another blog post, I’ll argue that if anything, it hurts. So just forget everything else and focus on what matters – getting an alpha of your product out the door and into the hands of your friends and family. Use some URL like http://www.mygreatstartup.com/shhh.html. Then, once you’ve fixed the initial bugs and incorporated a feature or two that everyone requested, go live. Remember: keep it simple. The initial product you build is for you – you don’t know what features everyone else wants. Launch fast and light, and listen to your users for feedback. In the product, always have a way to ask for user feedback. Remember, once TechCrunch or GigaOm writes about you, you’ll most likely get crushed with a single surge of traffic (we fondly call it the “blog spike”), only to watch almost all of it flitter away. Take advantage of that surge to learn and iterate.
Finally, get good mentors. If someone had been there and just told me “join a great founding team, focus on the product, and forget everything else,” I would have saved a lot of time and heartache. A good mentor is someone who has been part of the startup community themselves – someone who has a realistic understanding of some of the basic dos and don’ts of starting up. You don’t need many – one or two to begin. In Meebo’s case, two of our friends, Todd and Cam, gave us a ton of pre-launch advice. Every time we started straying down a wrong path, like flirting with just talking to that one VC or even thinking about approaching a company about a partnership, they’d always come out with something like, “is that going to get the product out faster?” Trust me, once you’ve launched and achieved traction, you’ll have your pick of mentors, VCs, partners and all the legal expenses you need.
I hope that some of this hit home for those of you who’ve been working on your own startups. In later posts I’m going to get into more detail on specific topics like hiring, raising money, what types of ideas have the potential to get big, finding your founders, and the like. You can follow them over on the Meebo Blog, so bookmark this post and Mike tells me they’ll link to subsequent posts. Alternatively, follow me on Twitter (@sethjs) where I’ll mention when I put up a new post.
Part 2: Finding Your Co-Founders