Avoiding The Startup Stall-Spin:
Why Your Startup Needs Technical Cofounders
I’ve spent the last several years working with early-stage technology startups. More often than not they fall into one of these two categories:
- They have an “idea” and are trying to raise money so they can hire somebody to help them realize it.
- They already have some money and are trying to find a “technical person” who can “build it”
Let me say it now — if this sounds like you, you are probably already doomed. Seriously. Stop now and go back to middle management, or start your efforts over from scratch. If you stick on the current path you WILL fail. Here’s why.
Mercenaries Are Not Paid to Care
If you are trying to build something, you presumably care about it and think it is worth doing. (If you don’t really care about it but just think it can make money, you should stop reading my blog altogether.)
If you can’t make other people want to join your team simply on the basis that they like your vision (and like you) then you are going to be faced with “hiring” someone to “build” your vision for you.
And that person is not paid to care about your vision. Free agent programmers, while they may be consummate professionals and quality engineers, will most often build exactly what you tell them to build.
There are three major problems with this:
- You probably don’t know what you want to build.
- You will probably do a very bad job of describing what you want to build.
- You will spend most of your capital building something that no one actually wants.
And when the “prototype is built” and the “programmer” hands you the keys, who is going to maintain the code? Who is going to make ongoing structural adjustments to reflect the needs of your customer?
How will you identify and collect the metrics that will inform your business decisions?
Most entrepreneurs give fuzzy answers here, like “we’ll raise money on the prototype,” or “we’ll hire someone once we have revenue,” or the most laughable answer of all, “we’ll outsource that.”
The bottom line is that there is no substitute for TEAM. And there are lots of creative ways to build teams, but it has to start on day one.
Why Entrepreneurs Fail to Build Teams Early
This one’s really simple: isolation, inexperience, and negative reinforcement from past experience.
Isolation: most novice entrepreneurs exist in some kind of vacuum, limited to their social circles from their previous jobs, schooling, or professional discipline. As an example, many smart “businesspeople” simply don’t know any good “programmers.” Good startup teams emerge from relationships that already exist. And if you don’t have relationships with people that can help realize your vision, odds are you also haven’t asked them what *they* think of the idea. That can be incredibly revealing and instructive.
Inexperience: novice entrepreneurs are, by definition, new to the game. They don’t know that founding teams don’t come from “help wanted ads” for “incredibly talented programmer who will build my crazy web service.” They simply don’t know. Memo: this is not how it happens.
Negative Reinforcement from past experience: Many entrepreneurs and experienced business people alike have exactly one idea of how to “find people,” and that is to “find someone” who can “do the job.” And since jobs are paid for by money, they assume that funding is important so the firm can “hire people” to “get the task done.”
The very idea of “hiring someone” sets the task up wrong. Here’s why.
As the “hirer” you’re making several statements:
- I think this “job” is worth exactly this many dollars and nothing more.
- I don’t give a @#&%& about your opinions — build what I want you to build.
- You are replaceable.
And when you do hire someone on these terms, you get what you ask for — someone who will leave you for something that pays better (and who probably left something else to go bleed you dry).
The Startup Stall-Spin
As a pilot, I sometimes use flying analogies. A stall-spin, if you have never heard the term, is a dangerous situation: the plane tries to climb upward too steeply, loses lift, then begins to fall, spinning nose-first straight down towards the earth.
Often in the fall the pilot will incorrectly try to adjust the wings to “steer” the plane back into control, but at that point there is almost no air flow over the wings and this action makes the spin even worse. The only correction the pilot can make is to adjust the tail rudder to stop the spin, and then the plane will begin to regain lift and maneuverability. Often a pilot will lose over 1,000 feet of altitude in a stall-spin correction and it is certainly dangerous; for a pilot that encounters a stall-spin without some training and awareness, it is very often fatal.
Entrepreneurs need similar training to avoid (and, less preferably, correct) the “startup stall-spin.” Here’s what it looks like.
- Entrepreneur has some “idea.”
- They get a programmer to “build it” at considerable expense.
- It is released to the public and is met with lackluster response by the market.
- Revenue projections are missed.
- Morale suffers. Everyone from employees to investors to strategic partners suffer a loss of confidence.
- Funds are depleted. Required product changes are delayed until funds can be secured.
- Original mercenary programmers lose faith in the effort and may even badmouth the entrepreneur.
- New programmers become reluctant to join the effort.
- The project becomes toxic and burns and dies. Everyone loses money.
There is only one way to recover from this, and that is to correct the original mistake: instead of hiring mercenaries, restart the effort from scratch with a real technical cofounder.
And here’s the kicker: if you can’t find one, you’re going to fail. Also, if you don’t do it before #3 (dealing with lackluster market response by making modifications) you will also likely fail.
And here’s why: you can never hire someone who will care the way a cofounder will care. And if you can’t find a cofounder, stop — unless you can get to a point where you’re generating revenue all by yourself.
Many of you may be saying, “I tried to find cofounders, but it was hard.” And it can be. And I will address that in my next post.
Meantime, I hope you give some thought to the “startup stall-spin” and how you can avoid it. In an airplane, you try to avoid stall-spins by avoiding stalls entirely. It is no different for a startup. Because recovery from that error, while survivable, is risky — and terrifying. Only a solid team of committed cofounders can keep you out of trouble!