Start your startup in 5 simple steps

In my very first article, I urged aspiring entrepreneurs to stop procrastinating and jump right into their startup journey as soon as possible. But how do you get it started? Although there is no one-size-fits-all method, here's mine.

Transient

1. Open your mind

This is especially important when you don't have a particular idea you would like to work on yet. When we only focus on creating the next cool product before finding real problems that are worth solving, we tend to end up with "solutions" that don't make any meaningful impact to other people.

So open your mind - focus on understanding how people and things interact with one another. By observing real people instead of tinkering with ideas behind a desk, inspiration will come to you in various forms -- be it from the disgruntled stranger at the mall having a problem with a dead phone battery (possible solution: card-sized mobile battery packs) or a stressed-out colleague at work (possible solution: a game to beat up a virtual avatar of your boss).

Dig deeper, and gather clues from every single event that happens around you. Be truly interested in the lives of others -- this is where you might find your next great idea. Even if you do not find any ideas that you're passionate about, you would have built long-lasting and meaningful relationships.

2. Empathise with customers

After finding an idea, you should share it with everyone. Many people choose to keep ideas to themselves, in fear that they would be "stolen". Truth is, most successful businesses are not based on novel ideas, and almost every idea is a variation of some other existing solution. The top reason for startup success is great execution, and we should be focusing on the mastery of this skill instead.

By speaking to more people, you are able to see how different people react to your idea. Who was able to immediately relate with your idea or connect it with a problem he/she recently faced? These will most likely be your primary customers. Start breaking it down further to get a feel for how big an impact you can make, and always empathise!

Remember, it is not what you think the problem is; it's about understanding the user's experience of the problem. Do not let your interactions end with simple questionnaires because the insights you gain can only go as far as the length of your questions - instead, try observing how people react when they face the problem. The bigger the negative reaction, the more likely they are willing to pay the right solution.

3. Fake a solution

Your next step is to build a landing page (try Strikingly, Launchrock, Shopify and/or QuickMVP) and send out e-mailers, Google Ads or Facebook Ads to get more external validation and bring life to your idea. Imagine how your solution would look like and make quick mockups on your landing page. Many of us call this the Wizard of Oz technique -- no one needs to know that you do not have a functional solution, you just need to know who is interested to pay for it.

Remember to collect their contact details so that you can communicate your progress to them. Communication with alpha customers is crucial at this point. If you do a good job, these alpha customers will turn into your first batch of brand evangelists!

4. Try to kill it

Now that people like what you have faked, it's time for you to try to kill it. This sounds counter-intuitive but it allows us to take a step back and understand the business. By exposing all the critical assumptions of your startup, the gaps in your skills and the flaws in your business model, you are better prepared for the future. Here are some questions you should ask yourself.

  • Is the barrier of entry too low?
  • Is the cost of running the business way too high? 
  • Does the revenue model make sense for your or any investor to support the business?
  • Do you have the right expertise to grow the business? 
  • Are there legislative issues you need to deal with when running the business?
  • What are the operational requirements for you to get it up and running?
  • Is the market large enough?

5. Flip the switch

You made it this far. You are convinced that you are able to take this business to another level even after trying to kill it by exposing all the gaps in your skill sets and your understanding of the business. It's time to flip the switch and turn all those alpha customer signups into actual paying customers. Congratulations, you have founded your startup! Of course, you'll need to continue validating the assumptions around your business - we'll talk more about that another time. For now, grab a cold one and celebrate the birth of your startup.

Handling the startup marriage

Transient

Someone (let's call him L) once told me...

Being in a startup founding team is like being in a marriage, and just like any marriage, there will be disputes, misunderstandings and times of heightened conflicts.

L couldn't have been more right. I don't always agree with him, but this is definitely one of his best advice. His words of wisdom are also very much in line with Noam Wasserman's book - The Founder's Dilemma (a quick overview of the book can be found here). Resolving issues within founding teams is more important than finding customers as unresolved conflict between founders is one of the top reasons for startup death.

Types of Marriage

There is the "arranged marriage" where founding members are put together in a particular circumstance such as winning a hackathon or startup weekend with aspiring individuals/complete strangers and the "chosen marriage" where co-founders band together believing that the other person is "the one". Regardless of the kind of marriage you're in, the struggles are very real and it's essential to start off on the right note. There are definitely strategies to bring a bad start back on track but that's for another day.

The Prenup

The prenuptial agreement a.k.a founders' agreement needs to be created earlier rather than later. Many teams might say "Let's just work on this now and leave that for later", however, starting this discussion earlier does not mean that there is mistrust amongst the team members. In fact, it signifies that each member views this as a real venture, and believes that the business is one that's worth persevering for, even without immediate funding. This also helps prevent the situation in which some members are deeply invested in the startup while others are part of the team "just to learn" or to "see how it goes". Ideally, every member of the team should start with the same level of motivation or there will be dark days ahead.

The crux lies in balancing the time spent on validating the business idea and on gradually building up the prenup. Rules for decision-making, understanding the motivations of each team member, equity split and vesting arrangements, and deciding on the CEO are some of the key points that you can include in the agreement. Once this is complete, your team will be able to count on the constant reminder that despite the fact that the journey will have its fair share of conflicts, every member has agreed to work through them together.

The Partner

When deciding if your partner is suitable as a husband/wife, you assess how life would be with the person in a long run. It's easier to imagine life with a spouse because of the way we have seen our parents, other families and even movies portray the dependence and partnership between couples. However, when it comes to the right co-founder, many are tempted to pick their best friends or family members without the slightest clue of what it really means to be co-founders.

Coming from a family where my father had most of his brothers work with him, it was heartbreaking to see how certain unpopular decisions caused strain between the founding team, common friends and other family members.

I'm not saying you should walk out there and find just about anyone to build your startup with! In fact, it's best that your co-founder is someone you have worked with. You can properly assess how working with him/her would be like as you would have had a good sense of his/her work ethics, communication style and moral ideology.

Having co-founders with different skill sets will also introduce diversity to the team and reduce problems in decision-making and overlapping responsibilities. Assigning the primary roles of each founding member early helps to reduce role confusion and potential tension. Be mindful not to set isolated responsibilities as it will lead to everyone working in their own silos.

There are great companies built by close friends such as Apple (Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak), so it is possible that your startup might actually beat the norm. It is also important to remember that no matter how hard you try, divergence might still happen in future even between the best of co-founders (Steve Wozniak eventually left Apple).

The Lead

Your startup should evangelise being dynamic and all about the team, but you will need someone to carry that CEO title. This should definitely be decided unanimously as a team. If there are conflicts about this at an early stage, it'll be very difficult to build momentum or even hire your first batch of employees.

So, who is the most invested in the startup? Who made the greatest contribution and will continue driving the vision? That might be one way to make the call on who is the best fit for the leader. While most startups have a natural tendency to crown the idea originator the leader, that should not be the sole basis for choosing him/her as the CEO.

Finally...

It is okay if you are unable to come to an agreement on the prenup or a conflict ends the marriage. Engaging in these discussions earlier means that you care for each and every founding member. Finding out that your team is unable to work together at an early stage helps create new movements in everyone's lives new ideas will spark and new teams will form.

Just as every startup runs its own experiments, we as startup founders should also view our life as such, and take every event that happens as a valued lesson.