With this new year rolling out, I find myself coming back to a topic of personal improvement that has been on my mind for a while: Social Networks. How they appropriately can support relationships and communication, and how they detract from relationships and communication.
It’s been said a number of times that people actually find themselves isolated from a physical social life when using online social networks, in some cases, even doing so in place of interacting with people in the physical realm. While there is a bump of excitement when friends like or comment on an update we posted to our Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Vine, Youtube, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Flickr, etc. (and in some cases strangers or exclusively virtual acquaintances), the long term value really doesn’t work out to much more than this little emotional bump. And then it’s gone, with nothing left, not memories, no stories to pass along. Quite an empty social interaction really.
Personally, I haven’t read about any studies on the effects of using social networks versus spending time with people face to face, but recently I began to look back through all the time I’ve invested into social networks, the people I have connected with there, what I get out of it, and then I looked back at my face to face world; similar to the social network parts: the time I invest, the people I connect with, and what I get out of them. Turns out, from the online social networks, the biggest value has been that people know what I’m up to, and I know some of the things going on in their life too. That’s about it. Aggravating this, turns out, with all the algorithms managing the things we get in our social network “feeds”, we’re not even getting all of the updates from our friends, just those programmed to meet our ‘expectations’ for things we would like to see, based on some programmers work. In the face to face realm, the people that I spend time with is far fewer compared to the online group, but those that I do see and speak to, provide more important moments for me. Turns out, there’s a lot of people who will take time to connect and communicate with me online, but have never once made the effort to do anything with me in person. No coffee chats. No parties. No help with work or personal life issues. That’s something I seek to change.
I just finished a year off from work and when I got back I pursued finding work aggressively, online and offline. The online efforts got me one small job, but the offline efforts, even those like walking up and down the street talking with businesses, got me multiple jobs, which have been worth easily 8-10 times more value than the one job I found online. That’s right, the return on investment in face to face time got me more work than the efforts I made online. And believe me I spent a lot of time generating some opportunities online. I guess the people who I could meet in person had a stronger impression and really focused on my needs. Those online, might have been too distracted, or I wasn’t communicating properly through the text and updates, etc. Who knows. The results are still obvious.
This wasn’t a scientific experiment, surely there are many opportunities for people to explore online alone, with no need to leave their computer. But there are just as many people baffled by the dependance of others to online networking and communication dependance. And those people trust a face they met in person, and would rather discuss important topics than spell it all out in an email, or schedule a video chat.
I know I’m not alone, many folks feel the pain of the rush to be online, some are just over whelmed with all the things that can be done online now. Many get by still just fine with brick and mortal style, it’s nice to see. But then there are all the others who I know I will not stay in touch with unless I stay online. And that’s the thing that’s on my mind the most now. How offline can I be and not fall out of touch? Should I just go 95% offline, saving the few moments I do login, to reply to email and respond to a Facebook message or some other online only activity? I would like to stay offline. In my own experiment, I will focus in doing more offline. We’ll see how it goes. I hope I can offer some more insights on that.
A frequently repeated mantra around the tech startup ecosystem is “it’s all about the team”. Perhaps that gives the wrong message though. Too many entrepreneurs believe they should first find a good idea and then build the team. Entrepreneurs should be motivated to find their partners first so they can hash out the idea together.
We live in a society where it’s easier to make one founder the center of attention. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson. They all had partners from the very beginning. Don’t expect a person on the street to know the names of their partners or that they existed. But, if you read their biographies you can easily see the importance their partners played, and it’s hard to imagine things going well for any of these entrepreneurs if they didn’t have help from day one.
Solo = No Go
The truth is, without a co-founder most solo founders are dead in the water. Sure some build a prototype, and then get co-founders on board once they have proof of concept. But this, more often then not, is a waste of resources. Think about the consequences of building before you have the appropriate team to build the company from the ground up.
Sales focused founders who pay a freelancer or offshore company to build a prototype can sign up customers early on, but when a would be technical founder sees what they technically have to work with, they will want to rebuild it from scratch. That’s a huge turn off, the potential CTO will hardly be enthusiastic to pick up where someone with no passion for the product has left off.
Technical founders who lack the sales & marketing qualities necessary to evangelize their apps early on may overlook important features for the customer|market fits and build a product potential marketing & sales parters aren’t eager to sell. “Nice to meet you, I can’t sell your product!”
Investors will wonder why a solo founder didn’t have the foresight to find at least one partner. Is no one willing to work with this person? Does no one believe in his idea? Maybe the founder’s network is too small to find a partner. Maybe he doesn’t know how to leverage his network.
To all solo founders out there, take my word for it, do not contact investors until you have at least one co-founder on your team.
Network Magnification and Credibility: As a solo founder you can only gain the support of your network. With a network of 300 people you can potentially reach hundreds of thousands of people to promote your startup. But through the power of 2nd and 3rd degree connections, just one additional partner can increase your network by many magnitudes reaching not a few hundred thousand, but probably over one million people, and you will need every last one when it’s time to start promoting and finding early adopters.
A co-founder adds vital creditability. Just like the investors who ponder the credibility of your one man show, people in your network who have to decide if they will shamelessly promote you, and will subconsciously wonder if they are telling their own trusted network about a new and great company a personal contact of theirs is building. Being able to talk about what “we’re” doing reassures them you’re officially a team, you can float up your partner’s credentials for bragging rights, this sounds better than just talking about yourself. Coming off as a team full of skills and past experience combined to take on the challenge drastically increases the chances of convincing others your company is an exciting adventure and they will feel important when you give them the chance to tell the world about it.
Collaboration: Having a partner protects against pursuing bad ideas. A solo entrepreneur has nobody around to agree to call it a day. Or to try harder when it feels like it’s time to give up. Larry Page and Sergey Brin openly joke about how they didn’t get along when they first met, they had strong opinions and disagreed. Would Google exist today if they hadn’t challenged each other ideas ideas back in 1995?
When people of more than one specialty and background work together, their synergy produces the creativity startups need to think through problems in new ways. It’s important to have devils advocate who isn’t afraid to second guess the logic behind an assumption.
Complementary Skills: The number of companies started by one person are extremely rare. In the few cases it has happened, the technology and opportunity was so huge, and the company was growing so fast, it didn’t take long to have the traction necessary to recruit other team members with necessary skills to scale the company. For the other 99.999% this wont be the case. From the very first days important skills will be needed to divide and conquer the onslaught of challenges that will come from every direction.
The goal of a founding team “is to take the original idea and search for a repeatable and scalable business model– first by finding product/market fit, then by testing all the parts of the business model (pricing, channel, acquisition/activation, partners, costs, etc.)” — Steve Blank
A solo founder is going to have a tough time doing all of that. Building, searching for scalable business model, finding product|market fit and iterating through various tests on assumptions for the business, it’s too much to do alone. Few people are so talented to understand all of these areas completely, and again. The expertise should be divided to achieve greater focus, which in turns leads to greater success.
How to build your team: The take away of all this is solo entrepreneurs can explore ideas, and launch prototypes. But they should prioritize the activity of finding people who are interested in building a company. Founder dating, and networking events despite lots of suggestions on this subject are probably not the best place to start looking for co-founders. A better approach is reaching out into one’s network, being open with others about searching for a co-founder, and asking for introductions.
What your team should look like: Unfortunately most people won’t get to be picky when looking for the right co-founders, and yet finding a co-founder fit with complementary skills and the readiness to tackle very hard problems during periods of serious doubt, is critical. If the team cannot get through the worst times, many costly issues will stand in the way and waste valuable time. If differences arise far enough along, a founder will have to be bought out, or sit on the founders shares of the cap table, which could cause irreversible financial pains for the company.
Entrepreneur and VC Mark Suster has written specifically about this subject and gives a good punch list of qualities to look for while creating a team. He makes several good points worth keeping in mind in a team as well as an investors perspective on what matters in the team. Being well rounded in skills, having consultative sales people versus relationship management style sellers, structuring tech teams with strengths of “people process & technology”.
I’m a solo founder. What now?
Start contacting friends and telling them you’re interested in building a company, and would love an introduction to anyone that might make a good co-founder in your company.
Do your own recruiting, identify the skills you lack to build a company, and search through Linkedin, Twitter, and tech blogs for people who have those qualities, and are in an appropriate place to start something new. Hint: an employee at a startup that is about to go into the dead pool maybe looking for new opportunities. Consulting firms, business schools, and agencies are full of people who may be planning to leave and start their own business, but don’t know a partner to do it with. Find a way to get an introduction to them.
Use the web to tell the world about your interests. Tweet and blog about subjects that you find interesting and see opportunities. People who are also interested in these subjects will find you, some may be your potential partner or know someone else who is.
Don’t sweat the critics, there are many thought leaders who claim a co-founder can’t just be picked out, that there should be a deep history between team members. While the reasons for this are obvious, there are lots of founders who met from different circles and went on to form great companies. Don’t let the nay sayers talk you out of pursuing your dreams.
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So who were the solo founders? While writing this I started to wonder who some of the solo founders of tech companies have been. This is just off the top of my head, there are certainly more. Feel free to share with me off line or in the comments.
I travel a lot, and frequently I’m traveling somewhere that there are friends to see. Inevitably the question of where to meet and what to do with said friends comes up. There are many layers of complexity to that decision, how close are we? When did we meet last? How much time do we all have to spend together? But generally, since I love all my friends, and never have enough time with them I opt for the most time possible.
In the past, meeting at a restaurant was always the go to – in our late 20’s and now early 30’s it’s been fun to choose some fancy restaurant and show off what adults we’d all become (assuming these are friends I’ve known for a while). Picking a great new place to eat was a way of showing how much style and taste we’d developed, or that we don’t have to eat pizza anymore 😛
Lately though, something’s have changed. I realized, there is so little time to see these friends, that while a swanky restaurant is a nice choice, it actually limits our ability to catch up; restaurants are often loud, and at least in the USA, once people have finished eating the check comes, and unless everyone planned to go somewhere else afterwards, that means the catch up time is coming to an end. In a typical US restaurant, that could be anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes of time together. I point out US restaurants because in Europe and other places outside the US there isn’t a rush from the waiter to leave your table so other people can sit down. Once you’re done eating you can sit and talk as long as you want regardless of what you plan to eat or drink.
The other change lately has been my budget. Since I haven’t worked in 6 months, I frequently encourage friends to find lower cost options, and typically the best available in that category is a home cooked meal. Home cooked meals are great because you can to show off your skills and adultness in a whole new way with your cooking abilities and choice of cuisine. Also unless you go all out on chic ingredients, the price can be much more modest compared to a full restaurant bill, especially if you plan to drink some wine.
Additionally, at home we have all the time in the world to catch up. No one is rushing us to leave the table, conversations can run late into the night. You can even offer a place to sleep in your home if guests don’t feel like driving home is a good idea.
You’ve probably dabbled in the art of cooking dinners with friends, so you already know what I mean. But perhaps you didn’t see it quite that way, or didn’t realize the benefit of not having to leave when the meal is over. For me the extra time is the best part of all. Life is short, I can count the past 5 encounters I’ve had will all my friends in the last 10 years, that’s scary. I fear there may only be 10 – 20 more since as life goes on we get more and more tied up, we make more and more friends, and our flexibility to meet up goes from once or twice a year to once or twice every two or three years. Make the time count, give yourselves an extra hour or two and you’ve literally doubled the amount of time you get to have in each others lives!