As we get ready to launch our third season of “Into the Forge,” the Lemnos podcast, we are taking a moment to look back at the wisdom shared from the first two seasons. We ask each founder the same 10 questions, and their answers shine a light on the diversity, frustrations, and joys of the hardware startup experience.
Question Nine: What advice would you offer to other founders?
In each Into The Forge podcast, we ask each founder what piece of advice he or she would offer to other founders. This is one question where every answer is a good piece of advice. The answers were varied, but clustered into a few choice nuggets of wisdom.
- Many of our founders (Sproutling, Revolve, Local Motion, Elroy Air, Nima) reminded other founders to take the time and energy to deeply understand their markets. It’s easy to race ahead into product development based on a few customer interviews and intuition, but many startup “pivots” are a consequence of the company finally understanding what the customer needs versus what the startup thought they wanted. Determining needs takes a deeper amount of interaction with the entire value ecosystem of a market, but customers are far more likely to pay for needs than wants.
- Another pearl was “Don’t try and do everything for yourself.” It seems obvious, but it’s a common trap founders fall into. Privacy Labs, Revolve, and Marble each mentioned that they wish they had outsourced more and worked with partners earlier in the process. It’s easy to think you can do things better or faster than a partner, but that decision might be penny-wise and pound-foolish. It’s often said that startups should outsource everything that is not core to the success of their business.
- Critical, honest feedback is harder to get than it would seem, and FieldVision, Elroy Air, and RavenOps all suggested that this feedback is critical to the success of a startup. It’s hard for many people to be honest with their friends and colleagues about something they know the founder takes so seriously.
- Elroy Air, Seriforge, and Marble’s founders all echoed an incredibly important thing to remember while pouring everything you have into your startup: Make time for yourself and your loved ones. It’s so obvious, so important, yet this wisdom is forgotten in the throes of an important product development push or fund raising window. Startups are a marathon, not a sprint, so remember that a few hours away from the office for exercise, rest, and time with family are not only restorative, they give your mind to find perspective and new ideas for when you return to the startup marathon!
Below you’ll find the origin stories from the founders interviewed for Into The Forge. You see many different paths explained throughout the first two seasons of the podcast. Enjoy, and get ready for more stories in Season Three, coming soon!
From Season Two:
A lot of people talk about the financial risk involved in starting a company, but for most people in Silicon Valley with a technical background, they’re actually very fortunate in that it’s not financially risky. You can always stop working on your startup and go get a job as an engineer or project manager or marketer or whatever you do at some other company. It is a social risk. What’s more scary is doing something different from your friends or doing something that’s a little off the beaten path. But you have to take risks in life if you want to do something exciting.
Kav: I would say one of the most critical things for us is organization around information. It seems like such a simple thing, but having really good organization around information—whether it’s on Google Drive and whether that’s a process like finding a product design partner—being able to take that information and transmit from me to Andy or from me to the team, and streamlining that communication are just such important parts and save you so much time and energy.
Andy: Seek critical feedback. We’ve spent a lot time trying to cultivate advisors who knew more about the topics we were working on than we did and got their feedback on it. That feedback is totally invaluable to the growth process. The more you can open yourself to critical feedback on your product, your idea, your pitch, your process, your team, the better off you’ll be.
Jon: Make sure you’re in love with your idea, that you’re in love with the industry. You really have to commit to it and you have to follow through, even when it’s a slog and even when it’s like, “Oh, I can’t believe we’re not further along.” If you’re not sure, you’re not 100% committed to that idea or this industry or this vision, that’s okay. Spend more time exploring it. But before you pull the trigger and say, “This is what I’m doing,” hire up a team, and everything else, you have to be 100% on board personally for thick and thin.
Eric: Also on the personal side, don’t underestimate the impact it has on your personal life. You’d better clear your decks and be ready for a commitment on the level of marriage.
Revenue is better than fundraising. It might feel unnatural, you may want to dive right into R&D, but talking to customers very early on, figuring out what will get money in the door, that can actually fund your company. Not just going out doing prototypes and talking to investors, but rather, going out talking to customers, doing contracting for them. A repeatable sales cycle is worth a lot more than any technology you can create, because it will keep your doors open.
Dave: Reach out to people who can help you. One thing about the global culture of venture and innovations now is that people want to connect—even if somebody seems like they are so senior and successful, and why would they want to talk to you, a first-time start-up founder. If you’re in their space, and you’re doing something interesting, most people will make time to talk, even if you’re green and new. That’s one of the biggest things that I feel like I had enough pluck to do, even though I’m actually kind of an introvert. But you have to just do it. Most people will say “Yes” to a coffee meeting.
Clint: I think mine is more seguing a bit from the self-care thing I talked about. I had in big block letters at my office at Airware on this folded sheet of 8.5×11 the letters T-A-D-L-Y-B. It was my little abbreviation for “The Aircraft Doesn’t Love You Back.” That little note reminded me to go home and see my wife and kids more times than not. Usually I’d come back the next morning totally refreshed and ready to tackle stuff. It’s real easy to get kind of wound up in wanting to make your product succeed, but that product is not going to succeed if your home life doesn’t remain healthy.
Thomas: I would say, “Just go and start to try to make something.” When we were speaking with farmers, it was hard to explain the idea when they wouldn’t see the prototype. As soon as we had even a little something, they were super happy that we we’re trying to bring something on their farm and really working on it.
Sébastien: Try to have a very frequent iterative process—a very short time between when you experiment in the lab and actually test in the field. Even very early on, the smaller this period is, the better and quicker you’ll be able to get to a product that actually works. For us, for instance, pretty much none of the components that are on our prototype were first decisions. We basically changed every single component of the machine. The only way we were able to achieve that was because we had this weekly field test that allowed us to quickly go from an idea to checking if this idea works for real.
Josh: Your burn rate is never going to be lower than it is now. You will never have more time than you have right now. I know when you close your first little bit of seed funding and you’re really excited and everything behind you is saying, “Accelerate. Hire the team. Let’s burn this money. Let’s go!” That’s the perfect moment to hit pause, even if it’s just a week, to just confirm your plans, ask the customer questions. Because after that, you’ve got people, you’ve got momentum, you’ve got burn, and you’ve got a timeline.
Randy: And leverage your alumni networks. When asking customers, we had a 60 percent response rate because we reached out to eighty-plus people from the MIT alumni network, and they were incredibly receptive to taking conversations with us.
Sankarshan: Look for trends and others’ opinions like business intelligence. When you’re younger, you don’t think of yourself as a futurist. If there’s one advice I would give myself, which now I constantly give, is develop this muscle to look around the corner.
Giri: Spend some time really understanding what are your strong suits, where are your blind spots. I would probably consider bringing in some level of expertise either through a consultant or a more involved advisor to have more specific guidance in-house or more closely attached to the core of what it is you’re doing. And you really need to have a wide array of talent on a team to be successful building hardware and shipping it.
Dirk: Question your assumptions. Don’t think that you know the answers to things just because you’re technical or you think you know things, especially when it comes to hardware.
Matt Delaney: Don’t forget to exercise. I have fallen in the trap of working a little too hard and then having to step back. I need to take care of my body so I’m at my top. Basic advice, but indeed important.
Kevin Peterson: Try more things. Hire people faster. I spent a lot of time at the beginning of Marble coding myself. Now looking back on it, most of that code is not being used. There are a couple things that are, but it’s been replaced by really great people. Obviously you have to get to a demo-able point. There’s always this question of, “What do you do?” versus “What do you get somebody else to do?” But get more people on board so you’ve got a better gang earlier.
From Season One:
I’d give pretty much any entrepreneur three pieces of advice. The first is really think about what are the behaviors that the product is requiring from the customers and make sure that you’re not trying to create new behaviors. The best products in the world take some behavior people already do that suck, and make it suck a lot less, or make it great or better. Number two would be that people buy benefits, not features. I think a lot of people tend to market their products and talk in terms of “this is a 486 with two megs of RAM” or what have you, but in reality, I think people don’t buy things based on the features. They buy based on what is it going to do.
Number one is you’re no longer an engineer. You’re no longer whatever you thought you were going into this. You’re now a marketing professional. Your job is to define your market, to zero in on who your customer is. You really need to do this. Otherwise, you’re going to learn really hard that you were wrong.
Secondly, don’t try to handle everything yourself.
Thirdly, quit your job. Jump off the cliff, because you’re not going to take this seriously unless you do. You’re not going to have the fire under your ass to do this.
Make sure you have a product. That’s why we did a Kickstarter campaign. Start with a product and not with the engineering.
Stay true to your vision. It is very important. Because there are certain things that we see this company being in the future, and it’s hard to explain that in a 10-minute meeting. People don’t always realize where you’re going, and they give you feedback without realizing there’s something else you have in mind. So you have to keep the vision in mind and get feedback, but don’t overreact to it. And don’t get upset by more work, more challenges coming your way.
“Don’t quit,” it sounds so cheesy, but really, if there’s 25 cents in the bank account, don’t quit. If you have customers that still believe in what you are doing, you will find a way. There is really nothing that comes close to shipping a hardware product and seeing your physical product on someone else’s wrist, a person you don’t know, and have them love it. It’s totally worth it.
The most important thing is to find your product market fit. A strong product market fit is 100% essential to successful products, successful fund raisings, successful sales, and successful growth.
The other thing is do not ever compromise on your hiring. Always hire the smartest person you can find, hire people that are better at jobs you are doing than you are. You can replace those jobs with someone better, more innovative, stronger and more powerful than you are in that role. Never ever waver on that.
Really go after customer development to make sure that you have product market fit. The lean startup, lean fad thing that’s happening right now does reflect this underlying truth that the less resources you can expend getting the product market fit, the better. So go after that.
And a lot of hardware founders back their price point out from looking at their cost of goods. I think that that is not the best way to do it because, really, kind of related to the first comment about product market fit, you should find what price point the market will bear for your product, and then back out what the product can be on the inside based on that.
Start looking into venture backing before deciding to do a crowdfunding campaign. The deadline of a campaign can be detrimental. If you say you’re going to deliver something in four or five months, and it’s really not realistic, you can both hurt your customer base and have to cut corners. If you can, get investment to give you a little bit more of a runway for prototyping and getting ready for manufacturing.
If you can’t, then start talking to manufacturers early. Don’t just assume that if you launch the campaign, you’re going to be able to find somebody. That’s a pretty big risk. Make phone calls, send emails, and get quotes.
Shireen: Make sure people are going to buy it. Understanding your market is really critical. And then from a personal standpoint, I would say manage your emotions, because there are highs, like you feel like you’re on top of Everest, and there are lows, where you’re at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. And the delta between those can rock you. So, try to manage your emotions and use whatever way you can, whether it’s exercise, meditation, or a good glass of wine, to stay as even as you can.