🌞 The (Not So) Glamorous Life of Founders
Ex VC-backed founder Allen Liao shares the the not glamorous reality of being a startup founder.
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We are often presented with a very one-sided perspective of founder life by the media.
Capital Raises. Exits. Fame. Press. Success.
But in reality, that is a very, very small and rare part of the journey.
What you don’t often get exposed to is the gruelling decisions and situations founders have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
We were lucky enough to dive deep on the founder journey of Allen Liao (Advisor, Angel Investor & Ex-Founder) who previously raised $3M+ in capital, was featured in the global press, and recruited world-class advisors + investors including Stephen Fry
Here’s a look behind the curtain that you won’t normally see founders talk about:
So you've got a great idea that will change the world, you're going to get investors, you're going to build an excellent team and product.
Very soon, everyone will be buying and using what you've made, you're going to become phenomenally wealthy, and they'll be writing about how great you are in TechCrunch…..
These are thoughts that might go through someone's head before they're about to jump into building a startup for the first time (at least they did in my 19-year-old head when I first started mine).
Yet, the narrative very rarely plays out like this. It’s a messy, bumpy road, and you cannot be faint of heart if you wish to survive as a founder, let alone succeed.
As famed VC Marc Andreessen who I was lucky enough to pitch in 2015, once said: "You only ever experience two emotions in startups: euphoria and terror".
There are a lot of great things about being a founder, but I thought it was important not to sugarcoat or put a positive spin on the downsides.
Here are the 10 things I wish someone had told me to be prepared for before I became a founder 👇
My startup failed, but from seeing the stories of founder friends, these are issues that arise in all startups, regardless of size, success or industry.
I would have proceeded very differently if I knew these were scenarios of near certainty:
1. Feeling like you’re failing a lot of the time ❌
Nothing prepares you for running a company except running a company, and you’ll be constantly forced to do completely new things you’ve never done before.
Yet, you’re going to be expected to do them well - because you’re the founder/CEO.
When I was 21, I had a team of 10 people, all of which were older than me. I had no idea how to manage them as they all had more experience than me and I often didn’t know how to give feedback in the proper way.
2. Falling out with your co-founder 💔
Co-founding relationships are one of the most intense relationships you can have with an individual.
For the first few years of your startup, you’re going to spend every waking hour with that person in high-pressure environments.
In most cases, you’ll see them more than your romantic partner.
Things will definitely get tense at times and it’s not uncommon that founders will have breakups. I built my startup with my best friend at the time, and we had a severe falling out within 18 months and no longer speak to each other.
So, before you start a company with a friend, ask yourself, are you ok with this friendship deteriorating? And choose co-founders wisely, you wouldn’t marry a significant other without dating right?
3. Letting team members go 😔
Business is hard and hiring is even harder. On average between 40-60% of hires fail within the first 18 months.
Someone may look great on paper and ace the interviews but could ultimately underperform or be a bad cultural fit.
You’re most likely going to have to let a team member go at some point, this is one of the hardest things you’ll have to do.
4. Feeling desperate and lost 😶🌫️
Nearly every company goes through near-death experiences. Even Apple was 90 days from bankruptcy when Steve Jobs returned in 1997.
Your company is likely going to go through one, you’re going to have to call up an investor and beg for them to help you keep the company alive.
My company went through three near-death experiences, where I often had to grovel and beg for someone to help. Unfortunately, we didn’t survive the last one.
5. Walking away with nothing financially 🪙
We are all familiar with the loose statistic that ~90% of startups fail.
If this is true, your founder journey is likely going to end with you walking away with nothing in return.
You need to be completely okay with this when you get started.
6. Your first product sucking 👎
Building stuff is really hard, especially if you’ve never done it before, in an industry you’ve never worked in. So you’re going to work really hard and when your first version is done, it’s probably going to suck.
It took me almost 2 years to create the first beta of our product Unlosable Glasses, one of the key features was that our app would notify you when you left them behind.
When we first sent out the beta, people were hundreds of notifications that they left their glasses behind when they went for a run wearing them.
Turns out the sweat from running was interfering with the electronics, causing the Bluetooth to cut out.
7. Taking responsibility for the failure of others ☝️
There’s a quote in Pixar’s A Bugs Life: “The first rule of leadership is: ‘everything is your fault.’”
This is absolutely true and members of your team are likely going to produce below-par work and you’re going to have to take ownership and put your name on it.
When we sent out our first-ever marketing email to announce our glasses for sale, the link in the email didn’t work. I didn’t write that email but in the end, it was my fault the email wasn’t properly tested before it was sent.
8. You’re going to have to disappoint a lot of people who trusted you 😢
When we missed our sales targets, I had to let go of half of my team and when the company folded I had to tell investors I lost their money.
If you’re not prepared to do this, don’t start a company.
9. The press will write unflattering things about you 📣
Press is a double-edged sword. If it hadn’t been for the initial stories that came out about my company, we wouldn’t have been able to start.
But this also means that when things go wrong, people will take notice and write about it.
If you’re going to court attention, be prepared for high-level scrutiny when things aren’t good.
The headline for my company in the Sydney Morning Herald was: Aussie start-up backed by Apple luminaries and Stephen Fry collapses.
10. You’re probably going to experience mental health issues 🧠
49% of entrepreneurs experience mental health issues; so it’s basically a coin flip that you’ll experience them as a founder.
The journey comes with tremendous highs and unimaginable lows, the unrelenting stress will probably get to you at some stage.
Throughout my journey, I personally experienced extreme bouts of depression.
At the end of my startup, I was hospitalised for eight days after not sleeping for a week due to the severe anxiety of conducting two rounds of layoffs and the company potentially becoming insolvent.
Support is available for those who may be distressed by phoning Lifeline 13 11 14; Beyondblue 1300 224 636.
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