The Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting My Startup
Friends Mark Tanner and Dylan Baskind decided to launch their first startup together; a cloud-based alternative for Microsoft’s Word, Excel and Powerpoint which turns documents into beautifully-designed web pages. Mark tells The Cusp the things he wished someone had told him before embarking on the startup journey.
Around two years ago, I started my first startup, Qwilr, with my co-founder and friend Dylan. I was 28, Dylan was 27. Since then, we’ve raised over $700,000, built out a team of eight, and have had tens of thousands of users (which is a fair amount for business software).
But man, there was a lot to learn along the way. So, here are some of the things that I wish I had known before we started this amazing, terrifying, fantastic and sleep-depriving journey:
#1 It takes way longer than you think it will
There is a saying among builders that almost any project you work on will take twice as long and cost at least 50% more than what you initially think. This is also true for startups.
No matter what area you are looking to launch in, there is always a lot to figure out:
–Who is your customer?
–How can you reach them?
–Which pain points of theirs are you solving?
–How can you build your product/app/website/store?
–Who should you hire?
–Do you need investment? How much? How should you get capital?
–Money stuff: accounting, budgeting and payments
–Other stuff: Legal, operations and media
–All the extra stuff that’ll pop up, ad hoc
It is certainly possible to figure out all of these considerations, but the only way to do so is to get started and try your hand. Sometimes these attempts will work, and sometimes they won’t. That’s OK – think about the issue, talk about it, and then try something else. This will take time. A lot of time.
You will likely have a great idea, work on it for a month, and then realise that it has a fatal flaw. This flaw will now seem blaringly obvious. You will feel annoyed. Keep going.
#2 Actually plan for it to take a long time
This has many implications, but here are a four things that have helped Dylan and I settle in for the long term.
Focus on what matters
Eric Rees in The Lean Startup mentions the saying, “Most startups don’t starve, they drown” and this struck a chord.
There is so much that you have to do (see incomplete list above) and it can feel like you have to do it all simultaneously. If you do this, you will fail.
You need to prioritise. You need to say no. You need to leave what could be good opportunities so that you can focus on and lock in others that are already showing promise. This can seem obvious to say, but it is easy to forget.
Don’t burn out
It can be easy to overwork yourself while working for your own company. You can feel the need to work well into the night, work on the weekends and not take holidays because it’s your thing.
While you should certainly be working hard, building a company is a marathon, not a sprint (or rather, it is thousands of sprints). You need to be at your best for years, so plan accordingly – and make sure to take at least one two-week breaks every year.
Vest ownership with your partner
At Qwilr, we want every employee to own part of the business. But, when they first join, we don’t just give them shares (or options) up front. They have to earn them – typically over a number of years, with the first batch of shares not being given out until the employee has been with the company for one full year.
Critically, the same is true for my partner, Dylan, and I. We have our ownership of the company being granted to us gradually over many years. This means that if either Dylan or I were to leave Qwilr, we would be leaving some significant chunk of shares behind.
I believe this is the best and fairest way to manage something like this and I encourage you to do it for at least a four year period. Why? This way, you both know that you are committed, your interests are aligned, and if something goes wrong (which it can) you have some protection. Speak to a good startup lawyer if you need more advice on this.
You don’t know everything so get some advisors and mentors
Once you realise that there is a lot to know and that it won’t be a fast process, you can start to think about how to minimise the amount of time it will take. A great way to do this is to get a group of trusted advisors around you, who have been through it before.
We’ve found it incredibly useful to have the advice of other founders our age, who are generally a couple years ahead of us in knowledge, alongside having older founders and CEOs who have done truly impressive things with their lives.
The young guns tend to give practical and relevant day-to-day advice; the older and wiser ones tend to give you the deeper advice from having seen many different businesses over many different decades. All of this information is priceless.
Of course, you should also take time to gain insight from reading books, blogs and websites (hello!), listening to podcasts and occasionally going to meet-ups. However, if after your first few months you’re spending more than three or four hours a week on this – you are probably wasting your time. Get back to work.
Speaking of work…
#3 You need to make your deadlines matter
Most of us work well to deadlines. When you are your own boss, you have no deadlines.
Being successful at managing your time as an early-stage founder is often about finding ways of setting meaningful targets that come with hard deadlines – and then publicly committing to them.
You can do this with your team, your advisors and investors, or just with your friends – but you need to do it publicly because you need to be held accountable. You won’t always make them, but more often than not you will and you (and the company) will be better for it.
Warning: It can be tempting to rely on your business partner to set deadlines for you. This can work very well, but it can also lead to a straining of the relationship. Be wary of this if you go down this path.
#4 It’s hard, but so worth it
It’s been hard and after two years, we’re only part of the way there, but starting Qwilr was the best thing that I have ever done in my career.
Being comfortable that this is a long adventure we have only just begun; knowing that my co-founder and I are aligned; having excellent advice; and having structures to help us get shit done has meant that working at my own startup is not only exciting – it is sustainable and I look forward to doing it for a long time to come.
Mark is the co-founder and COO of Qwilr, which allows anyone to create their documents as beautiful webpages in minutes. Before Qwilr, Mark worked for Google’s Product Partnership team in New York.
Lead Image: supplied. Credit: Kate Disher-Quill