This post is addressed to my future self, who (hopefully) would found a startup of his own someday. This is my last week at Saleswhale and I would like to pack as much wisdom into this post from my experiences there and from the wonderful people that I have talked to. It is a very personal post for me and it speaks straight from my heart. To be honest, I teared up a few times while writing this. I hope you will feel the sincerity in my words, and I hope it will inspire you.
Forget About Building The Perfect Startup
As a first time founder, you may be tempted to get everything right and stress every little detail. You will push yourself to the limits in an attempt to hold this image of perfection, striving towards the media ideal (think HBO’s Silicon Valley of a sexy, fast growing, action-packed company. You will continue to try to get everything right, until one day something bad happens and shatters your dream right in your face. You will learn the hard way that there are compromises to be made, and every decision will be a painful one with its own trade-offs. You will lose precious days from your runway trying to find product market fit, you will get shot down by investors, you will lose key early employees, you will churn star accounts, you will neglect your personal life and connections. You will realise that building the perfect startup is a myth, and your fiery passion to attempt to continue to chase this myth will burn you down and reduce you to ashes. It is only when you understand this that you will notice the burn marks all around you, and you will then take things forward in a realistic and sustainable manner. Remember that time is the most precious commodity in a startup, and having the courage to make a firm decision on the information you have on hand now is far better than trying to find the perfect solution that pleases everyone.
Shit Will Happen And You Will Be Fine
Many times you will be confronted with difficulties that will seem to you to be the death knell for your company. You will feel like shit, begin to doubt yourself, and wonder if you have let down your investors, employees, and family and friends. You will feel sick to the core, and be absolutely disgusted and disappointed in yourself for allowing this to happen. You will feel like there is no recourse to turn to, that there is nobody there who will understand your pain the way that you do. You will wonder if perhaps eveything that you have been doing was just simply a joke. You will lose your way and suffer from countless sleepless nights, knowing fully that everyone is looking to you for direction but being unable to provide any. You will take everything personally and wonder whether you could have done more. You will wonder if you are good enough. But then this too shall pass. You will survive again and again even when you thought the ship was sinking and land was nowhere in sight. You will see that through it all, there are people around you who are bracing the same storm with you. You realise that you are not so lonely after all, and perhaps things are not as bad as they seem. You realise that shit will happen, all the time, every time, and you will learn to take it in your stride. You will become more calm and composed, and you will inspire confidence in others. But the irony is that you truly have to be mad to be comfortable with the madness swirling all around, and indeed you are, chasing a distant dream with astronomical odds, placing your very heart and soul on the fire. But that was the thrill that you were seeking all along; man’s search for meaning that makes you feel alive. You would rather die fighting than knowing neither the taste of victory or defeat. That is who you are.
Your Early Employees Will Define Your Company
Perhaps nothing more will define your company more than your first few early hires. They are the ones who will weather the storm with you in the darkest of days, who will create the culture and values that you stand for, who will build, sell, and make known your product to the rest of the world. They will have an outsized influence on your thinking and the company’s direction, and their legacies will be felt for many years to come even if they have moved on to pursue other things. These are the people with whom you will forge the strongest of bonds, with whom you will share the most unforgettable and precious stories, with whom you can call a lifetime friend and confidant. Through blood, sweat, and tears, they will be the ones picking you up when you fall, and letting you know when things go wrong. Choose your early employees carefully. Know that it is easy to hire someone but extremely difficult to part ways with them. You do not want them to be a carbon copy of yourself and end up creating an echo chamber, but you will want to make sure that you share the same values and vision. Funding at the seed stage is always about investing in the team, and that is the most important thing that you should focus on. Therefore, expand your network. Get to know new interesting people who are just as passionate and hungry as you are, and stay in touch with your existing contacts. You will be fine.
Always, Always Have An Unnatural Sense Of Urgency
You want things to move fast, but things will never move fast enough. There are always more features to ship, more customers to meet, more interviews to carry out. Prioritize your time ruthlessly, and never fall into the trap of complacency. The company will never run out of problems to solve, but apart from the immediate fires that you are seeing around, look ahead and anticipate what are the future problems that you should begin solving now as well. You will not know it, but averting many of these problems would have a decisive impact on the future of your startup, and you may only understand its impact by looking at parallel examples of startups that failed to recognize this problem. A sense of urgency means that you know your work is never done, and that things can always be better. Move fast or die.
Be Bold and Be Brave
As the founder, everyone else will look to you for direction. You want to project confidence and let the team know that the company is on course. You will continue to inspire and motivate them, letting know that you are doing your best and also letting them know that you expect nothing less than best from them. You know, however, that underneath this there lies nothing more than a gamble. A gamble on how the future will be built. But you have worked on this problem for longer and harder than anyone else. Your vision drives you, and you see in it a future carved by the unmistakable markings of you and your company.
Trust and Transparency
The people who joined your company, especially the early hires, did so because they placed their trust in you. They believe in what you see and are willing to dedicate all their energies into building this future with you. This trust is precious and irreplaceable, and you must never, ever misplace it. Be transparent with them with everything that is going on in the company. Let them know the grand strategy, the problems, the trade-offs, and the solutions. You want to trust them just as how they have trusted you.
There Are Things Outside Your Sphere Of Control
Despite your best intentions, many times, things will not work out. It is important to recognize that there are many external influences beyond your sphere of control, and sometimes the best you can do is to adapt to the situation and let it be. Attempting to control everything is impossible and blaming everything on your personal failures will drive you to madness. Know when it is time to take a step back, and pick the battles that you can actually fight.
You Will Make Many Mistakes
You will make many, many mistakes. Some of them will be so grave that they seem to put the very existence of the company in jeopardy. Other times, they will cause a lot of frustration and precious time wasted. Making mistakes is normal and people will understand. Learning and recovering from these mistakes will be the things that will drive your personal growth the most. You will mature and begin to see things in a new light. Like Plato’s cave, you will realise that there are few whose eyes have become accustomed to the sun. You will find out that being a CEO can be lonely, and that only a CEO can understand the problems of another CEO. You will meet up with other founders and share your experiences over a light hearted meal, drawing comfort in the fact that there are others who have faced the same problems and persevered through.
Remember Your Childhood Dreams
Remember why you started. A 14 year-old you was enthralled by the idea of building something bigger than yourself; of dedicating your life’s energies towards a project that will push the boundaries of human innovation and make this world a better place. That kid has fought hard to keep his dreams alive. He has made countless sacrifices with steely discipline. He has forged ahead relentlessly into unchartered lands, subsisting merely by his own ingenuity. Do not disappoint him. Do not forget him!