In an earlier blog post, we discussed how these last few years, the startup industry has firmly decided that “business profile” founders are bad guys. In the in-crowds –investors in the know, accelerators, up-and-coming mentors, tech bloggers- people bond over beer and business-founders bashing. It could seem like bad news for these business graduate founders, but it’s not. A lot of this aversion is grounded in valid reasons. It means there are concrete steps you can take to not be judged a useless profiteering fake with no appreciation for other people’s “real” skills.
We set out in this business because we know that exceptional founders can be found anywhere, not only among engineers and developers. They just bring different skills to the table.
It’s a numbers’ game
How big is this market, and how much money can this startup make from it? That’s the first question that pops into the head of any investor who’s interested in your business. That’s the first thing he wants to know, not how you built your awesome prototype or how your software works. It’s a business like any other; it all comes down to numbers.
A big chunk of a founder’s early work revolves around market discovery and customer development, which means laying down hypotheses and collecting data and crunching numbers. And these numbers need to be precise; at the start of your business, they could mean the difference between: “Most of the people I asked liked my product” and “More than 80% of my core target would be unhappy without my product”. With the first, you’re basing a business on wild estimates. With the second, you have a textbook definition of product-market fit.
And that is just in the first stages of the process. Identifying and tracking the right metrics will continue to be a necessity all along the way. Does spending exceed revenue? Are new client acquisitions profitable enough to offset marketing costs? Does it make sense for me to hire more people right now? Is there a way to speed up or simplify production processes or interactions with customers?
So why aren’t there more startups with a balanced synergy of tech versus business skills, and why all the hate on non-tech founders? I think it’s mostly the product of arrogant ignorance. Founders with a business background come in thinking they will be in familiar territory, and don’t know how much they will have to learn. They don’t adapt fast enough.
In the first batch at Hidden Founders, we talked with many first-time founders who worked in management consultancies, in investment banks, in giant multinationals, and who were brilliant at what they did. They all made the same mistake of thinking that business was business, and expected to make some kind of shortcut while converting from boardrooms to co-working spaces. They have fancy business plans with extremely complex scenarios and models, impressive slide decks, and no idea of how useless all that is for an early-stage startup that doesn’t even have an MVP on the market yet.
What we tell these founders is: your instincts are sound. It’s your practical approach to business that will have to change. Make some kind of business plan or a few projections to have an idea of what revenue model you should adopt, but don’t treat them like a guideline to follow, don’t commit to them. Ask yourself if your target will like your product, but don’t do it in a survey with a product description, do it by asking them to pay for a small prototype, or at least by giving them a landing page and some features to try out. And it works; a small shift in approach is generally enough to put a good founder on the right track.
Business grads do it better
When I first started thinking about setting up an analytics engine for Hidden Founders, I automatically dumped that responsibility on a team member with a business background. Their complete inexperience with the technical side of web analytics didn’t bother me. There are so many great tools out there, and so much literature, that almost anyone can track almost anything in real time, and with a precision that would make any marketing professional drool. What I needed was someone who knew how to zero in on the important numbers, and who wouldn’t get lost in all the vanity noise. I decided that I would rather have someone with business experience learn the technical side of analytics, rather than have a developer gather theoretical knowledge about marketing and business development.
That choice paid off for me, and I think it would for other startups too; people who are comfortable with numbers, have business experience, and in addition know their way around some basic analytics, could be an asset to any startup.
Since part of what we do is help our non-tech founders ultimately find tech co-founders, or even CTOs if needed, we preach about analytics all the time. We see it as a valuable addition to their skill set, something that makes it easier to pitch themselves as co-founders. Unsurprisingly, most of them enjoy exploring all the possibilities that analytics tools offer, and can get a little side-tracked from the actual purpose of analytics, which is to improve performances. It’s tricky to find the right balance; on one hand, it’s not worth the time or the resources of a startup to track more than one or two very significant metrics before attaining a certain critical mass. On the other hand, though, it’s very easy to put off analytics until after something unexpected -a sudden increase in visits, a dramatic drop in sales- happens and needs to be monitored. By then it’s a little too late, and you don’t have any data to go back to for explanations. For our part, we’re still leaning toward the side-tracked end of the spectrum, which is understandable, with all these toys to play with (Have you had a look at that delightful little thing called Geckoboard?).
Can’t keep a good founder down
This said, the abundance of tools is good news for non-tech founders: if it’s a function in a startup, there’s probably an app for it. There are apps to integrate APIs, and apps to streamline your CRM, and apps to collect contact info… and of course tons of apps for analytics. Being familiar with them will give your work a layer of precision and real-time flexibility that will bring you up to Valley standards. Who know, it might even earn you the title of founder with “real skills”.
Here’s one example of how you can very effectively waste some time testing out blog post titles.
- Post a blogpost on your blog
- Jot down a list of alternative –and I mean “alternative”- titles for your post: the idea here is to go in every possible direction with your themes and sentence structures. Your titles should be all over the place if you really want this to be interesting. For this blog post, it could go from “How analytics will make you better founder material” to “stop the non-tech shaming; embrace your analytics”.
- Post a link to your article with all the different versions of your title in all the places where it could be relevant (or not):
-on quora threads that the article answers
-on your twitter feed
-on the bio of any profile you have out there: Freelance, Behance, Cofounder’s lab…
-as a comment on a related linkedin post
—You want all your versions of the title to be on each channel, not one version for every channel.
- Tag all your links, with different tags for each separate link (so one tag per title per channel)
- Wait some time and then have fun dissecting your results on whatever analytics tool your website is hooked up to. What title is more popular? Which one generated the highest number of engagements? Who in your customer base liked the whackiest titles? What did they say about it?
If you’re still in the first stages of market discovery and MVP building, then you probably have more to worry about than how well your blog is doing; you might not even have enough traffic to obtain any significant results. So, unless your whole business centers around how well the content you publish is doing, and THAT is your market discovery, the time spent building and tracking such campaigns might be put to better use. I do recommend doing something like this at least once, because 1) the practice is good for when you actually need to do it and 2) it’s strangely satisfying to be able to know exactly where all these clicks come from.