Pragmatic advice for starting entrepreneurs

TL;DR: Maximize assets-building and problems exposure to increase odds of founders/problem fit epiphanies. Keep doer ethos at all times.

Today we shared a coffee with an inspiring young graduate willing to venture into the startup world. We discussed various strategies to get him there and enjoy the ride all along. Here's a boiled down version of some advice I could give him.

Your goal: Hitting founders/problem fit

Let's start with the objective: finding a juicy problem you are uniquely skilled at solving. The combination of great minds working on a great problem is a good indicator of the success potential of a startup (and something investors will be looking for). Note the use of the plural for founders: starting a company is too hard to do it alone.

Achieving founders/problem fit is no small feat, and way trickier than coming up with startup ideas. It requires flair for problems identification and being in a privileged position to come up with compelling solutions - both simultaneously.

While it takes some serendipity, there fortunately are ways to increase the odds of hitting founders/problem fit.

Maximize assets-building

Relentlessly building your assets will increase your chances of being in a unique position to solve a particular problem.

Assets can be of many natures:

  • Hard skills (either creative, intellectual or manual): they will help you build things - which is a prerequisite for many innovative companies out there.
  • Soft skills / personal development: they will help you inspire people - whether to convey your company vision to investors, to recruit and manage a team around you, or to close your first sales.
  • Network: they will help you to not feel alone and get support in though times, as well as finding your co-founders, first customers, employees, and investors.
  • Knowledge: will bring you insights and new ideas, while broadening your horizons.
  • Money: this one is more of an auxiliary commodity. It's helpful to have a bit of savings aside to release financial pressure in the early days, but this by no means puts you in a unique position to propel your company.

So, whatever trajectory you choose, be sure to actively build assets all along the way.

Maximize problems exposure

The second part of the founders/problem fit is the problem itself. If you're just out of school, it is important to realize that you still only have been exposed to a small class of problems - B2C problems, mostly. While it's sexy to think about building a product used by millions, consider the following:

  • B2C startups success follows a very skewed / all-or-nothing distribution. It's either fail silently or succeed massively. B2B follows a much different curve, where success can already be achieved with a dozen of customers.
  • Similarly, B2B customers have a much higher willingness-to-pay and stickiness. Some SaaS companies charge their customers several millions of dollars a year, for contracts lasting several years. Compare that with a freemium iOS app making $10/year for paying customers...

I would hence advice to get exposed to as many types of problems out there as possible. A funny story related to this is that of Segment (a massively successful customer data platform). They initally started as a classroom teaching solution: a problem they knew well as they were just coming out of school. Later on they expanded their horizons to consider B2B problems - the rest is history.

You should also put yourself in situations where you are yourself faced with a wide variety of problems (don't take risks of course 😉). This will increase the likelihood of hitting a "Scratch your own itch" type of problem.

Strategies to get there

Now, which trajectories can you follow to maximize assets-building and problems exposure at the same time? Let's assume you're just out of school and have the luxury to choose between the 3 following options. How do they compare?

  • Starting your company now: great to build assets because you'll need to learn everyday to try and survive. Also great for problems exposure because you'll be faced with a ton of them. However you might screw up execution due to lack of skills, and there's a real chance that the problem you're targeting is not worth solving / too hard to solve or that it's not very juicy. Still it's a great way to get started, even if you may completely pivot away from your initial idea. Be aware that it may be hard to convince investors if you have limited credentials, so you'll have to enjoy ramens.
  • Joining an existing startup / scale-up: great to build assets if the company is mature enough to put you on a true learning journey. Beware of unfunded early-stage startups where founders are fully focused on survival - they will likely have limited time to coach you (rightfully so for the company). Great for problems exposure if you manage to land in a transversal position.
  • Joining a large established company: great to build assets and learn how a company actually works. Joining a consultancy in that regard is probably the best option because it teaches you a lot about hard and soft skills while exposing you to a very wide set of problems through clients engagement.

There are of course tons of other trajectories such as enrolling in a bootcamp, doing voluntary work, taking a year off to travel...all with their specific blend of asset-building and problems exposure.

Enjoy the ride

Whatever your trajectory will be, you should keep a doer ethos at all times. If you want to do something but don't know what to do exactly, don't worry. Actually wanting to do things is the hallmark of entrepreneurs, so you're off to a good start.

All along the way, remember to enjoy the ride, and be patient. Your time will come!

Like what you just read? You may enjoy my other Welcome Pack to Startup Life article.