Startup Lessons From My Screenwriter Life, Part 1

Editor’s note: Dave McLaughlin is CEO and co-founder of Vsnap

I spent the first 10-plus years of my career writing and directing movies. Now I’m a startup CEO. Between these two roles, I’ve learned a lot about the process of getting ideas into focus and onto the screen, whether that’s the silver screen or my MacBook screen. Here are some lessons I learned from filmmaking that can help founders succeed in startup life.

Creative Passion Powers Your Effort

I wrote 10 or so screenplays, half of which were commissioned, optioned or sold. Out of all that activity, two feature films were actually made, one of which I directed. I worked with tremendous actors and we had a ton of fun.

But around 2008, I began meeting lots of startup founders and I found myself feeling amazed by our natural rapport, as well as their openness, their confidence and their creativity. What I saw was that startup founders were building on top of platforms with incredibly wide-set parameters, where almost whatever you could imagine, you could try.

In short, I felt that startups were more creative than the movie business, and I threw myself into this new world. Today, two startups later, I’m even more certain of that feeling.

Lesson No. 1 is love the idea you’re wrestling with. Love it. That passion powers filmmakers and entrepreneurs alike to put everything they have behind the act of expressing something deep and difficult and internal, which other people cannot see but very much need. And that’s what success requires. We live our lives in the context of enormous risk and uncertainty. We persist where others give up. And sometimes we are right.

Is Your Idea Good Enough?

The best process I know of to turn a half-formed idea into something more solid, without replicating some path other people have already taken, is simply to free write about it. This allows your subconscious to surface connections that illuminate your initial instinct.

Pairing unrelated ideas, which the subconscious does very well, is integral to innovation. After a few days or a week, try to distill that jumble of ideas into a coherent one-pager.

Who Should You Work With?

I once had a writing partner who took my name off a script I wrote and sent it to the studios as his own work. So I know something about misjudging collaborators. My feelings on how to avoid this kind of catastrophe are simple. Three things make a person the right co-author or co-founder. They are fit, vision and integrity.

Fit. Are your skill sets and/or networks complementary? Can you envision where each of you will contribute? Startup founders do need to be able to own a wide range of responsibilities, so generalists have real value, but early team members should also have authentic expertise in some specific domain — or at least deep curiosity and passion for that thing, which will power them up and over the learning curve.

Vision. Are you making the same movie? Do your respective visions for the business you’re starting align, at least directionally? There will be many healthy debates in your future about specifics of strategy and execution. But make sure you’re at least in the same genre and that your partner’s not trying to make a Jack Nicholson laugh fest out of a Stephen King novel.

Integrity. Identify whether the other person is selfish versus self-interested. The place to explore all this is in your conversations about roles and equity. You want someone who works backward from the envisioned outcome, not the person who puts themselves in front of that conversation. Selfish people see a zero-sum pie, whereas self-interested partners are honest about what will drive them, especially when the going goes into grind mode.

The essence of being on a team is that you make commitments to each other. I’m in favor of documenting those commitments in simple language. I don’t mean the legal ones — your lawyers will do that. I mean the personal promises. Because, like a movie, this venture you’re starting will take years most likely. Both of you will come under great stress, and powerful third parties you haven’t even met yet will likely come into the mix, bringing a whole set of biases of their own. Having a simple set of mutual commitments — sort of founder marriage vows — will be invaluable along the way.

One more thing — everybody’s shares should have vesting. I never encountered the concept of vesting shares in the movie business, but it really is a basic best practice among equity holders in startups — and that should include founders.

How Will You Sell the Vision Before There’s Data?

When I started out as a screenwriter, I assumed my agent would do all the selling so that I could spend my time articulating brilliant scenes and awkwardly acknowledging my intellectual admirers. That’s not the way the world works, and even introverted founders would do well to accept that, as Daniel Pink says, we’re all in sales. If you don’t believe this, then you’re naive as to what half of your conversations are about.

Like screenwriters, all startup founders must learn how to sell their vision in order to land seed funding, attract early employees, get warm introductions, etc.

Note that the following is not meant as a hack for bullshitters. It’s a framework for passionate founders who are looking for a simple way to format their early efforts to close key stakeholders. You shouldn’t do this if you don’t believe what you’re saying. It’s dishonest to the buyer, obviously. And furthermore, you’re going to find that you set wildly misguided expectations, which it sucks to try to live up to.

The heuristic that has worked for me is this: Right Brain, Left Brain, Right Brain.

See, when you sell a vision, as opposed to when you sell a product that people can touch and try, the buyer basically needs enough evidence to make the purchase decision that he or she already wants to make. So speak to the right brain first. Engage emotionally, with an emphasis on your personal level of excitement. This is why startups always talk about how they’re making the world a better place. Because for other people to take a risk on you, they must see it as something they can care about. Like, with their hearts.

Once your buyer (investor, target recruit, pre-product customer — whatever) cares, then you hit them with whatever data you can muster to increase the credibility of that vision. That data will vary depending on where you are. Early on it might be a market sizing construct paired with the “data” of what impressive school you went to. Think about a hierarchy of validating data, with that kind of thin stuff on the extreme low end, and paying customers / off-the-charts usage at the high end. Go as high as the facts allow in order to help the buyer see you as credible.

Then remind them of just how awesome and exciting your vision is and let them feel just how much conviction you have about that thing. Then you ask for the order.