Much has been written about how to get startup ideas, product-market fit, customer development and scaling companies, but there exists a gap in the literature about the logistics of figuring it all out in the very early days. The foundation you build in the early days largely determines the trajectory, and ultimate success, of your startup. Parallel to the idea maze is a “logistics maze” where you explore key considerations like what kind of company you want to build, who you want to do it with and when the right time to pursue it full-time is.
This series of essays draws from years of experience as an institutional venture capital investor and as an early stage entrepreneur myself. I have listened to thousands of pitches from entrepreneurs, attended dozens of startup board meetings and observed the evolution of high-flying and grounded companies over the years. This first essay touches on the self-reflection that sets up the entrepreneur for everything that follows in the startup journey. Because building an enduring company is a decades-long endeavour, taking time up-front to set up a strong foundation is key to maximizing the probability of success in an endeavour already fraught with risk. If you paddle a boat for ten years, a one-degree difference in launch trajectory means thousands of miles of separation in the fullness of time. It is worth it to take the time up front to determine, to the best of your ability and information available, that you are aimed at the right target.
In the early days of a startup, there is very little of tangible value beyond the people involved. Before considering your team, the most important person for you to understand is yourself. Below is a non-exhaustive list of important topics for reflection:
- Why do you want to start a company? For some, it’s to solve a burning problem they have, to create something they wish existed in the world, to follow a dream or to cultivate a side project that grew out of control. Others take the plunge in order to work with a particular team, create wealth, build a particular culture or place to work or hone skills and grow as an operator. There is no right answer, but it’s important to be honest with yourself early on. Your motivation and the strength of your conviction will be the guiding lights you can cling to years into the journey when you hit inevitable rough patches.
- What are your functional strengths? To successfully execute a startup, founders will need to possess or be willing to develop best-in-class strengths, whether it be in product expertise, understanding of an industry or technology, management skills or willingness and ability to hustle and grow. Understanding your strengths will help you assemble the right complementary team, and navigate to the right markets and problems to solve.
- What’s your personality type? An example would be to reflect on whether you are a 1 or a 2: do you like to take charge and lead, or do you fare better when given a structured plan? What’s your tolerance for risk and ambiguity and ability to act in uncertain environments? In addition to being honest about your strengths and weaknesses, these questions will help you determine your ideal role and the composition of the team to build around yourself. Understanding time frames, priorities, character traits and passions will also help determine the right market to attack. For example, achieving product-market fit in enterprise software is relatively more playbook-oriented compared to building hits-driven consumer software and you want to enter the right market for your interests, skills and temperament.
- What are your values and how do you want those to shape the company culture? Company culture is set in the early days, and is largely defined by the founders. Defining the company culture and values early on with your co-founders allows you to build the culture and workplace you want with intentionality.
- How do you define success? Understanding this will help you architect your company accordingly. If you want to control your destiny and build a bootstrapped business, that imputes a certain set of structural decisions. In contrast, if you define success by a large exit or IPO, swinging for the fences and tackling an ambitious venture-fundable idea implies a different set of people, ideas and markets. In the early stages, you can keep this flexible, but keeping success criteria in mind will help you set the correct foundation.
- Are you prepared for the arduous startup journey? What are you willing to sacrifice for the long nights and weekends and psychological burden? What are the non-negotiables? Do you have a strong support system? Startups involve time, ambiguity, late nights and constant ups and downs. Talking to people already in the startup journey and engaging your support system early will help determine your timing and readiness to embark on the startup adventure.
Building a successful, enduring startup at scale is a long and arduous process that typically takes 5-10 years. Things will change along the way, but preparation for the journey and laying the foundation with care will not go to waste. It’s better to have a plan and be prepared to make adjustments than to have no plan at all.
In the early days, seek out the answers to the big picture questions, understand your strengths and motivations and assemble a plan. Engage in the activities, people and places where you do your best reflection: talk to friends and family, seek out peers and mentors, journal, pray and spend time in nature. Navigating the logistics maze takes time, but you will emerge prepared to weather the storms, embrace the excitement and deftly navigate the startup journey.