This guest blog post on “Lessons Learned” comes from Founder Labs participant Zuhairah Scott. Many of you are likely familiar with Eric Ries’ blog "Lessons Learned", considered by many to be the bible for anyone looking to launch a lean start up.
I am no Eric Ries, but I've learned lessons during my month at Founder Labs worth sharing. Lesson 1: Judge People by the Content of Their Character, Not their Degrees. I hate labels, especially the technical vs. non-technical divide. My degrees usually don’t come up in conversations in real life but since we are grouped in teams based on function during the program, my MBA and role as the “business/marketing” person were often referred to. I didn’t really notice how prevalent the “MBA bias” was until after our first team presentation one engineer came up to me and said, “That was great! I now see the value that an MBA can bring to a team!”
Secretly, I love being underestimated and proving people wrong so I was quite tickled by the comment. I realized then, that technical people might in fact think that since I had a shiny MBA and couldn’t code all I brought to the table was the gift of gab and the ability to pull together fancy PowerPoint presentations. There are a myriad of technical AND non-technical skills that are needed to build any successful business. A coder without a vision and the ability to execute is just as worthless as a businessperson with awesome ideas but no practical means to test the product and pivot.
I think it’s a mistake for technical people to put non-technical people in a box and vice versa. In my opinion, everyone on the team should substantively contribute in a way that drives the business forward. If they aren’t, they most likely don’t belong on the team.
- Bottom line: When selecting co-founders, judge people by their work ethic, real not perceived skills/talent and the content of their character. Not their degrees.
Lesson 2: Become Conversant in Code. My first career out of business school was in private equity. Last week I was at a local café and overheard to finance professionals waxing poetic about IRRs, ROIs and cash on cash returns for their funds. Because I was fluent in the “language” of finance I understood everything they were saying but I can remember a time early on in my career when that was not the case. Just as I had learned the language of finance geeks, I now am learning the language of engineers.
Just as in finance, the secret to decoding the language is identifying the key themes, words and terms that are used in the majority of conversations. This is the same 80/20 principle that Tim Ferris uses to learn multiple languages in short periods of time. As a non-technical founder its crucial to either have someone on your team who can translate for you, or you yourself need to develop the ability to be conversant.
I am a hands on type of founder so I allocate time to regularly become conversant in techie speak. If you are interested in doing the same I would recommend the following to get you started:
- This Quora post has some good tips online resources for coding basics.
- I asked one of our rock-star mentors what other concepts a non-technical founder should know and he directed me to: test driven development, object oriented design and basically anything written by Eric Ries.
- Finally, the best way to learn is by doing. If you have an idea, build it with the skills you know and learn what you don’t. Or said more eloquently, “fake it until you make it.”
Lesson 3: Don’t Talk, Just Listen. All the 80’s babies are likely familiar with the R&B group Jodeci. In the beginning of one of their hit songs “Stay” the first words uttered are “Don’t Talk, Just Listen.” These are exactly the words I wish I had heeded when I first embarked on our attempt to do customer development for our mobile app. When we first came up with the idea for Kahnoodle (a mobile gaming and relationship app for couples) we were so psyched that we were able to get 50+ interviews in less than one week. The problem was that we had asked questions that didn’t really help us drive the business forward. Our “questions” were our assumptions about what the customer wanted in question form. Instead, what we should have done is just had a series of conversations with customers where THEY did most of the talking. This requires the use of open ended questions not a slickly crafted Survey Monkey survey.
- Bottom Line: Customer Development is not about surveys, it’s about conversations. The guys at KISSmetrics break it down beautifully here.
Lesson 4: Face Your Fears by Connecting with Something Bigger Than You. One of the most profound personal interactions we had during the program was the time we spent talking with Carol Realini, CEO of Obopay. Carol is a rare breed in Silicon Valley, she has raised $200M+ in venture money and has successfully exited two companies. Despite all her accomplishments she was remarkably human and transparent with us about the ups and downs of entrepreneurship. I would highly recommend that anyone looking to raise VC money review “Carol’s Laws” and follow them closely.
One key anecdote that Carol shared was the story about how she became fearless. It wasn’t fearless in the Incredible Hulk kind of way, it was fearlessness driven by care and concern for others. In fact she said she got the strength to press forward and ask for ridiculous sums of money in a time where there were even fewer women leading tech companies because she felt empowered by the 50 people working for her- at the end of the day she knew they were counting on her and she couldn’t let them down.
- Bottom Line: All entrepreneurs need to be resilient and fearless, but becoming fearless, sometimes can require being motivated by something bigger than you.
Lesson 5: Think Big or Go Home! VC’s fund big ideas. Make sure you are clear on what type of company you want to build and critic your “idea” consistently always asking if it is BIG enough. If you have a great idea, think, “How can I think bigger?” For example, Kahnoodle is primarily targeted for couples, but I can already see instances where it can be used as a tool to help maintain the health of all types of relationships whether it be staying in touch with your parents or influential colleagues in your professional network. Not everyone is interested in starting a company that will grow to the scale needed for VC funding. That’s personal preference – just be sure you are honest with yourself upfront.
- Bottom Line: It’s okay to start small, but always, always think BIG!
Lastly, I want to say a big THANK YOU to the entire Women 2.0 Team and Mentors including: Baat, Bernadette, Resmi, BRV (Jay and John), Jenny, Mike, Hiten, Christina, Megan and special shout out to Shaherose for putting this transformational experience together!
About the guest blogger: Zuhairah is a seasoned business professional with a decade of corporate experience. Currently she serves as a co-founder and Principal at Be Media LLC, a strategic media consultancy and social innovation lab that operates at the intersection of creativity and business and a Director of TruthAids.org. Previously, she was the Director of Business Development for Europe’s largest local search and review company. Prior to that she was the youngest Regional Vice President at a real estate private equity firm with $20B in AUM. She has held various positions at MTV, Booz, Allen & Hamilton, and Goldman Sachs and won several accolades including being named one of Washington DC’s Top 35 Under 35. She is the founder of The Billion Dollar Girls Club, a financial empowerment platform for women and The Goodness, a DailyCandy-like newsletter for the socially conscious crowd. Zuhairah also writes for NBC’s TheGrio.com where she covers stories related to business and personal finance. Zuhairah holds a B.A. from UCLA and a JD/MBA from Harvard University. If she hadn't pursued her graduate studies, she would have been the fourth member of Destiny Child.