I remember reading and re-reading encyclopedias as a kid and thinking I'd grow up to be a scientist or an inventor of some sort. While my childhood fantasy hasn't fully manifested (yet), I did find myself working at startups and caught the discovering/inventing/building/disrupting bug again.
That's how I ended up applying to Y-Combinator's Startup School for future founders. It's never too early to start thinking about your startup ideas, and I figured this course will only help me as a software engineer while I work at other people's startups.
Going into this, I had some preconceived notions about what I would learn and what my main takeaways would be. For example:
- How to find a cofounder
- How to build the founding team in general
- How to incorporate as a company (should you go with an LLC? At what point should your side project become a company?)
- How to divide company ownership between the cofounders
Notice that I was expecting to learn a lot of how-to's. And Startup School does cover all of these, and more. But somewhat unexpectedly, my biggest takeaway from this experience was not a how-to but a what-to.
If you work at a startup, especially if it's at an early stage, there are always a million things vying for your attention. There's always an emergency. There's always a fire to put out, and you're lucky if it's only one fire at a time. The todo list only gets longer, never shorter. Given that we are finite beings operating in finite time, what should founders focus on the most? What is the one thing you should always be doing that will give your startup the maximum chance for success?
Honestly, I thought the answer to this would be "get more investors"😅 It makes sense, right? After all, if you get more investors, then you have more money, and then you can hire more engineers, more salespeople, pay for more advertising, etc.
So I was surprised to find out that, no, getting more investors onboard is not THE ONE THING that will help your startup succeed.
Although getting millions in funding certainly doesn't hurt, the most important thing I can be doing at any time to grow the company can be summarized as "talk to users and build the product."
This doesn't mean "never talk to investors", but it does mean that you have a product that's always evolving to better meet the needs of your users before you pitch.
I was also surprised to learn this doesn't necessarily mean "hire software engineers ASAP", because some of the case studies we covered had MVP's that were thrown together using free tools like Excel, Google Forms, Zoom, etc, without a single line of code written by the founders. This took me a while to process, because I've always thought that successful startups must have technical people on the team (and they do! but not always at the start).
To me, this also reinforced the idea that as a software developer whether I'm working for someone else or building my own thing, I need to have an established way of communicating with my end users in some way. Maybe it's an occasional coffee with "Tell me about how our product is working out for you and what frustrations you've had with it this week?" Maybe it's a Google Form followed by a Zoom call. Maybe it's a few days a month of handling customer support. I imagine the details of how I maintain this conversation will change based on where I am. But one thing is certain, just writing good, clean, maintainable code is not enough.
If none of this is a surprise to you, hey you're way ahead of me! I'm still learning😊
Have you attended Startup School or worked at a startup? What were your biggest takeaways? What helped you grow? I'd love to learn more😊
In the meantime, I'm off to talk to users and build product!