Startup general interest

Founders: Don’t be too needy

We all know that things get difficult when someone wants something too much. You might have had a needy boyfriend or girlfriend whose constant need for reaffirmation and over-reaction to perceived signs of problems undermined your relationship. Or you might have experience of a co-worker who wanted promotion so much they got obsessed on one thing and lost sight of the big picture.

The same thing happens to founders. A lot.

It’s easy to see why. Starting a company is a big risk and founders invest a lot of themselves into their companies – a lot of time, a lot of emotion and a lot of money (whether by way of direct investment of opportunity cost of a higher salary that could be earned elsewhere). Then they hire people and raise money by promising success.

By this point failure feels unimaginable, an embarrassing waste of time and money, a horrible process of laying people off and a litany of broken promises to people they care about. And then the negative voices can start, I’ve wasted my career, I’m a failure, nobody will ever want me, I won’t be able to keep up the payments on my house etc. etc.

I have had some of these feelings at Forward Partners.

Here are the three most common ways I see needing it too much hurt founders:

  • They are less authentic when they pitch. Every startup is an experiment and is best understood as a learning journey, yet when they pitch founders are asked to project into the future with confidence. It’s important that they feel conviction – investors are most definitely looking for that – but it’s also important that they show an understanding that their assumptions might be wrong. Founders who need it too much have a hard time countenancing that idea, making them look brittle and unconvincing.
  • They don’t push potential customers and partners to a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, preferring to let time pass and have more meetings rather than take the chance of getting a ‘no’ that might be too hard to hear. The result is spending a lot of time and effort with companies that don’t come through, time that could have been spent building new pipeline, thus increasing the chances of the business succeeding.
  • They are chronically slow to ship product, always wanting to add another feature or add a bit more polish rather than release it to the world who might not like it. As Eric Ries taught us, if some customers don’t love the essence of your product you are doomed anyway and unless you are a most uncommon genius at least some, if not most, of the additional work you do pre launch will turn out to be a waste of time. So much better to release early. There’s a balance of course, and the game has become harder since Ries published The Lean Startup in 2011. Nowadays there’s an existing online alternative for just about every new product, so it’s no longer sufficient to ship a bare bones MVP, if you want people to even think about switching you also have to achieve a minimum level of usability across the whole product. But that doesn’t change the need to ship at the earliest feasible moment.

The first line of defence is self-awareness. If you catch yourself doing anything I’ve described above, or more generally, departing from your normal standards of objectivity then stop and ask yourself if you’re needing it too much. Then, maybe the tougher part is to try and change how you feel. Remember that, as important as it might seem at the time, no one conversation is going to make or break your company. There are always more customers and investors to talk to, so you can afford to relax a little. And if you get good at relaxing you will do better anyway.

The second thing is to take time to think through your Plan B. If you have an acceptable fall-back then it will be that much easier to relax and you should avoid the really negative thought spirals. Our big bet when we started Forward Partners was that we could get better results by investing heavily in an operational team to support our partner companies. Providing a platform that would make it easier for founders to succeed would let us win the best deals and help them reach even higher heights. That’s panning out, but our Plan B was a calculation that if all the extra investment turned out to be a waste of money then the fund would still make OK profits so long as the investments performed as well as companies I had backed in the past.

Finally, find someone to talk to. Best is a coach, if you can afford one. They will help you see when your need for success is getting in the way of clear thinking.