First-time founders truly embody the term “learning on the fly.”
There are many challenges involved with building and scaling a startup. Founders are responsible for everything from developing product market fit to fundraising to hiring a team. It’s really hard! You can’t act like you’ve been there when you haven’t actually been there.
My first experience as a founder began in 2009, when I founded my channel marketing consulting practice, Channel Maven. Ten years later, I started building Spark Your Channel, a SaaS demand generation company. Both founder experiences were truly unique, and I picked up some valuable lessons from them.
I’m often asked about my advice for first-time founders. Some common qualities I preach are self-awareness, mental toughness and a willingness to compromise. You can’t build a great company on your own, no matter how talented you are. First-time founders need to be humble enough to ask for help, but confident enough to maintain their momentum.
My Advice for First-Time Founders
Everyone’s experience is different, but here’s what I’d tell anyone who’s beginning their startup journey as a founder:
Build a team of complementary parts before you fundraise.
I started Spark Your Channel at the worst time. The investment team at York IE wrote us a check on March 10, 2020 — just days before the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. No one was leaving the security of their day job for the uncertainty of an early-stage startup like Spark.
If I could go back in time, I’d build out my core team before I sought investment. How you structure that team is up to you. Do you want a CTO and a COO as founding members? Or are you comfortable overseeing all parts of the business with director-level associates to help you out?
No matter your strategy, having a team in place before you raise capital ensures you can start scaling the moment you receive investment. Otherwise, your growth may stall as you look for the right complementary team members.
Startup Success Lessons Learned
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Delegate tasks and empower your team.
This all comes back to self-awareness. I’m a channel marketing expert; I’m not a software developer who can build a SaaS platform. Figure out what skills you need and find the people who can help.
Once you build a team, don’t be afraid to let go of certain responsibilities. You’ll never be able to focus on everything. Entrusting your associates with important tasks serves the dual purpose of:
- lightening your load as a first-time founder; and
- empowering colleagues with the power to affect business outcomes.
Different perspectives are important. Don’t be a control freak; let the smart, hard-working people you hire contribute to your vision.
Partner with the right investors for you.
Investors aren’t ATMs. They’re also not your bosses. Finding the right investor is about landing the right partner and the right fit.
When I partnered with York IE for Spark Your Channel, I was drawn to the personal connections I felt with their team. I wanted my investors to be friends and mentors to guide me through the journey of scaling a SaaS company.
My advice to first-time founders: Don’t go for the biggest brand name or the biggest check. An investor’s guidance is worth more than the dollar figure they’re offering.
Find a niche and stick to it.
When I founded the consulting practice at Channel Maven, I’d take on any client that came my way. I even partnered with a cereal company in the early stages. My expertise was in channel marketing for software companies, but we needed business.
I later realized that I could generate much higher profits with enterprise tech clients — and our services were much more scalable in that market. Take some time to identify your product market fit and do your best to maintain your vision. You can’t be a solution for everyone, so focus on the highest-value clients.
Early in my Spark Your Channel journey, someone gave me a bracelet that read “Keep F—ing Going.”
I could spend hours writing up all my advice for first-time founders. The most important quality — and the deciding factor on if you’ll make it — is your ability to stick with your vision.
Companies go as their founders do. If it’s your first-time running a startup, you’ll need to be able to power through failures. Luckily, you can rely on your outstanding team and insightful investors while following the plan you’ve developed for success.