The pretentious entrepreneur

These past two weeks have been quite busy, I am close to signing up two potential co-founders (finally!) and I participated in a Startup Weekend in Oslo. During this time, I have had some interesting experiences that have made me reevaluate my perception on the skills I thought made me a good potential founder.

One thing I don’t like about the startup environment is that you meet a lot of pretentious people. There are those who think they are smarter than the rest because they are “entrepreneurs”, there are those who think their idea is the best in the world and those who think their strategies are the best in the business. Is that really that bad? Well…

To think that you are smarter than the rest is actually pretty stupid.

I have been around people who started from nothing and became really successful afterwards.  And I realized that generally, the more successful they become, the more they get used to being listened to than to listen to. It makes sense, people want to hear what other smart people have to say. Basically, the smarter you think you are, the more you think you deserve to be heard and the fewer the people you think deserve to be listened at.

The thing is, if you are planning to create a product you should really understand that a user can be anyone, no matter how dumb or smart. So pitch your idea to the most basic and to the most complex prospective users and learn from what they say. If they don’t get it, they won’t use it. If you find people who don’t understand your idea, don’t think it is because they are stupid. It’s because your idea is.

Improve your validation with feedback from everyone, not just from the people you think are worth listening to. Your talent (how smart you are) should come to play evaluating that feedback, not choosing which feedback is important to get. Keep in mind, I am not saying mentor advise is not great, but that you can also get great input from everyone else. You will be surprised at how much you can get.

I saw this concept in action on this last Startup Weekend. A lot of groups where cramming for mentors (myself included), while very few were asking for feedback from the other groups. We put most of our trust in the mentors advise, and too little on our peer’s.

A pitch that sells is not a product that sells.

I think if you ask any of the “gurus” of startups, what is the common denominator of aspiring startup founders, the answer would be: “most of them think they have the greatest idea ever”. Don’t take me wrong, maybe we do. But when people start thinking that our idea is awesome, is it really the idea they believe in or is it you and your sales skills?

When you think your idea is good, you will passionately attempt to convince people who think otherwise. As founders, we are programmed to have an answer for everything, to counter any weakness that is pointed out, to seduce investors with our charming ideas. Our passion is contagious, and we convey such belief in our projects that is hard for listeners to resist. We are prepared to convince you, that our idea is great, and to make you believe the same.

The problem with that is that when everyone (and you) thinks that it is the greatest idea in the world, you end up thinking that there is no room for change. You lock yourself in the concept, and filter good ideas only when they make sense from that perspective. And so, you end up with a product that inevitably bounds to your own rationale of what makes something great, and that can go bad quite fast. (remember? you are not that smart). This is why I agree so strongly with the MVP (Minimum Viable Product) approach. It will let your product speak for itself. No sugar-coating, no charming smile. Raw, naked and vulnerable, that is how it should go out to the world. Let the users add the flare, let them tell you how to make it sweet, let the product speak for itself. That is the only way to create a great product.

Thinking that my idea is not the best has opened a range of possibilities for change and improvement that I would have never been able to see before.

Same ingredients – different cake. No startup (company) is the same.

I have previously emphasized the importance of making formal agreements with your co-founders. But I did not know one thing. It is one thing to agree on the expectations that you have and to make those formal. It is another thing to accomplish that without giving the impression you don’t trust them.

Let me explain, I have been talking to this potential co-founder for about 3 weeks now. He is a very cool guy, friends with my wife, quite reputable and skilled. After getting him pumped up on the idea, I threw at him a series of clauses on how his participation would be valued in the company. Basically, he would get very little, and if our relationship worked, and he produced, then he would get more.  I literally went all “prenuptial agreement” on him.

He reluctantly accepted my offer, but I could feel the excitement fade away. So now, we have changed our agreement, and once we sign the deal he will have a fair participation. We are still clear on what happens if our partnership doesn’t work out, but we are starting from a “I trust you” point of view, instead of doing it from a  “I will trust you” perspective. Trust is everything in a partnership.

I realized I cannot apply what I learned from partnerships in my other companies. Startups are a thing of their own, changes happen so fast that if our team doesn’t trust that we can make the right decisions individually, we will be doomed.


4 thoughts on “The pretentious entrepreneur

    1. rafaec Post author

      I agree with you Gilang. The thing is that I thought you can start from a “legal” relationship and evolve into a “trust” relationship. But things go so fast, that unless you have a trustworthy team from the beginning you will fail. Thanks your comments!

  1. Jo Grimstad (@jogrimst)

    How about just waiting some period of time before actually signing any contracts/agreements/equity documents? Have you considered to start by spending some weeks (or even months) for the two of you to start working on the product, and then afterwards sit down and assess your roles, relationship, time spent, equity, etc? It’s hard to know how much effort each co-founder will put down before actually having started building the startup.

    Another thing: it is really demotivating for a co-founder to be asked to settle with lower equity than the other, especially if you put down at least the same amount of hours as the co-founder with higher equity.

    I recommend taking a look at this article, which is about co-founders:

    1. rafaec Post author

      Hi Jo, in my experience talking about equity or at least how you split it at the beginning is beneficial. Everything can change afterwards but at least you know as a co-founder what is the least you get if things go wrong, and as the original founder you know how much you are willing to compromise. This way if things go wrong, nobody ends up being ripped off but if things go great, then there is only room for growth.

      Assessing equity on hours worked is a relative subject. It is how programmers measure and rate their work, so it makes sense. But what about non-technical co-founders? Their work can’t be assessed on hours.
      Also, what if a founder has already been working for several months in a project? Those months should be taken into consideration as well.

      My mistake was offering a ridiculously small initial equity. It was quite stupid of me. It clearly said that I wasn’t trusting him and I wasn’t willing to risk much in our relationship.

      This is what I think, but I may be terribly wrong. I was reading the article you sent me. It’s funny how if you read those articles (of startups that failed) and my articles you can see that I was doing or about to do most of the mistakes they tell you to avoid. But that is exactly the point of this blog, to show me (and hopefully someone else) the break pedal from time to time when I get off course.

      Thank you for your comments!


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