Jared Burden explains that the co-founders of a new tech business based on a great idea need to keep in mind several powerful elements of that relationship for it to have its best chance for growth and success.
That moment you realize you have an idea worth a business is a great moment. Sometimes it’s an epiphany on the road to Damascus. Sometimes it’s a slow dawning after a grind lasting several years. But however it happens, it’s time to sit back and go “huh.” It’s an achievement.
Most large corporations interested in continuing to exist generate ideas all of the time, as a matter of course. These ideas, generated by scientists or creatives, are noted, catalogued and vetted. With the promising ones, perhaps the inventor/employee fills out a patent disclosure form and a provisions patent application is filed.
But the rest of the ideas? They are just embodiments of the old adage that you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince or princess. You never get to the good ones unless you generate a lot of bad ones.
The fact is, most ideas suck.
I’m not writing to talk about bad ideas, though. I want to write about what high-potential start-up technology companies should first do with their good ideas.
Joseph Lassiter of Harvard Business School says a high-potential technology startup is one that plans to hit the $50 million per year mark in new product/service sales within 5 years.”
A new one-off auto battery retail store down the road, no matter how impressive the owners are, is not a high potential technology startup. But, the company that holes up in a garage in an industrial park developing an electricity storage product that is based on an idea that came out of a major university technology transfer office and could disrupt the solar energy marketplace probably is one. It almost certainly wants to sell its products to every big or small solar energy producer anywhere in the world and will do whatever it takes to get there.
Ideas are just that: Ideas. Even the ones that are good are worthless – at least on the day they’re are created. You can’t patent an idea, you can’t trademark an idea, you can’t copyright an idea, and your idea by itself doesn’t make a very valuable trade secret.
We tend to focus on ideas, on genius and creativity, the light bulb, the “Eureka” moment. But let’s be honest. There’s very little more poignant than the unfulfilled “Idea Person,” the person who thinks she could have been a contender in business if she’d just had the time/just had the money/just had the team to fulfill all of the dreams in her head. You have to do something with an idea, and chances are our “Idea Person” just didn’t stick with it – if only to get to the liberating point of understanding that the idea was not, really, in fact a contender.
I’ll be posting a series of blogs laying out five top things a high potential technology founder needs to do immediately if she wants to deliver on all of the high potential her idea might possess. I’ll be addressing the founder as “you.”
Number 1: Decide if you want a co-founder.
The direction here may have something to do with just how big is your idea. If this is the big idea, and if your high potential idea means someone has to develop the app and someone has to sell the product and someone has to be able to do the magic that quants can do with Excel, and this is all starting from scratch, then maybe you don’t want to start off alone.
This very first decision – whether to go it alone or bring one or more trusted folks into the founder’s tent – ties in completely to what resources you have available to you.
When founding a company, there are three basic assets you can make use of: human capital, social capital, and financial capital.
- Human capital means knowledge derived from formal education and the skills derived from prior experience. A founder with a great amount of human capital can reduce the chances he will get blindsided by something he really should have known could happen. Some call it “wisdom.” I believe you can have a lot of wisdom even when you’re 24 if you’ve studied a lot and worked a lot and kept your eyes open. And there are loads of people my age (which is older than that) who are don’t have wisdom. Point is, if you don’t have it, your human capital is less than optimal, and you may want access to it from someone else.
- Social capital means the benefits that come from your place in information and communication networks. A startup must project itself outward, whether it’s to hire people, raise money, sell, or any number of other things. If you are an industry insider, or if you just know a lot of people, or you just love networking events, then you might have a lot of social capital. If you’re someone who just doesn’t get out much, then maybe your own social capital is, shall we say, lacking.
- Financial capital means, well, I think we know what that means. For a founder, if you have “screw-you money,” if you can quit your job and pay for all of the costs of the new company until its projected time to become successful or not, then that’s a blessing. It’s a fairly rare blessing.
A major reason you co-found is to make up for the kind, or kinds, of capital you lack.
One researcher’s long-term study found that solo founders accounted for less than 20% percent of technology startups.
If you are a person with an idea, a sober-minded business plan might lead you to the conclusion that you need one or more cofounders if you are going to create a real business, and you might already know who they are. Or you might need to go looking. Either way, there’s someone close to coming up with the same idea in Portland, so best to get moving.
I’ll follow up soon with the 2nd action a founder needs to take after deciding to make a go of their great idea. Meanwhile, if you have any questions about the content of this article or on any business startup issue, please contact me or any of our business lawyers.
Jared Burden, Harrisonburg partner, led the kickoff session in the Growing Your Technology Business track at Valley TechCon September 25, held at the Hotel Madison and Shenandoah Conference Center in Harrisonburg, attended by about 160 company executives and entrepreneurs. His presentation laid out the five essential things a founding team needs to do immediately in order to turn an idea into a company. His slide deck is here.
If you’d like to have Jared reprise his presentation for your company or organization, please contact him. If you have questions about this topic, Valley TechCon or any issue of business law and growth, contact Jared or any of our business lawyers.
Entrepreneurs are fascinating to me. They are tied to the mast by their own natures. They can’t do anything else but what they are doing. They have to create. Even when the most they get from friends, family, and the guy on the next bar seat is a cocked eyebrow, maybe even a yawn.
Most of the entrepreneurs I deal with have long come to terms with the way they are wired. To them, it’s just who they are.
As amazing as they are in their inspiration and knowledge base, they (like all of us) can often use a bit of perspective. As general corporate counsel, that’s a place I can make an impact. It’s my job to scan broadly to see the forest my client is walking through, and keep a closer eye for the falling tree that might hit him on the head.
While I am not a huge believer that something as complex as entrepreneurship can be reduced to lists, there are a few home truths that have emerged for me in doing this over and over again. It’s in the form of advice I could give any person looking to forge a business where there was nothing before.
THINK IN THE ALTERNATIVE.
An entrepreneur needs to be able to analyze a challenge along at least two separate tracks — Pro and Con, Option A and Option B, these assumptions and those assumptions. This is easy for a lawyer to say; it’s what we’re trained to do. (“I did not kill that man! But if I did, this is why I should get off.”) But you know what? We all need to do it from time to time, and someone starting a business from scratch really needs to do it.
Bill is the founder of a company that is developing a family of apps for use within the construction industry. He has always believed that the vertical he needs to focus on as the way into the industry is commercial banking. It’s the insight that got him into this venture and it’s what he’s always assumed would work best. But a friend who’s given good advice on this venture before is telling him that it’s the building trades, people on trucks like plumbers and roofers, who would adopt the product first and then evangelize it within the construction world. Bill’s intuition has done him well in life to this point, and he’s loath to step away from it now. In fact, not just “going with his gut” feels like a rejection of who he is. But Bill needs to be able to mentally take a moment and imagine a world where he’s wrong and his friend is right. He should play out both scenarios – from past first principles, through the present, and into the future. And he should do it without kicking and screaming. It’s a waste of energy.
You won’t lose yourself if you think in parallel. Your brain is big enough to keep control of the whole process and bring everything back in when it’s decision time.
EMBRACE THE LIKELIHOOD SOMEONE ELSE IS DOING THE SAME THING
I’ve sat across the table from several company founders who have given me the look of a deer in the beams of an approaching car when I’ve told them my cursory Google search has shown others are already operating in their space. In these cases the entrepreneurs have gotten so romanced with their own idea, and so deep into the feedback loop created by unexamined assumptions of uniqueness, that they’ve failed to consider that others are already there, or nearby.
There really are few new ideas under the sun. (And I plan to write a piece about why ideas, alone, are pretty worthless.) It only makes sense that in a world full of smart people who, receiving the same inputs and experiencing the same things as you, would hit on your idea.
A new company is the most compelling when it is the first to market to solve a pain – or, better put, the first to (i) solve the pain (ii) with a sustainable business model. It can also be pretty compelling when there are folks already doing what you do, but you have some special angle on it – which may be no more genius than really good branding or deep industry knowledge. You need to know which of these scenarios – commodity or non-commodity – apply to you before you can really have any business entering the marketplace. They are very different realities.
You can’t know any of this before you fall out of love with your idea for a brief moment and survey the landscape with a sharp and skeptical eye.
REALIZE THAT YOU ARE YOUR BEST PRODUCT.
You will probably abandon your original business concept. It’s natural, somewhat inevitable, and completely healthy. It’s not failure. It’s life. We didn’t get dating right the first time we tried it. When we finished a term paper in college it probably was about something different than when we wrote the first word of it. Reflective light technology revealed that Da Vinci first had Mona Lisa looking off to the side, without her half-smile.
The original idea is what gets you into the game. Without the original idea you wouldn’t have had the reason to start the journey. But it will almost certainly not be what your product or service actually turns out to be.
What will still be there is you. Which, to me, means that you are the real product.
Smart early-stage investors know it, or come to know it if they see enough deal flow. There are a lot of ideas, a million slices of the pie of industry – lots of places to do good work. Lots of opportunity. But there are only so many people really who have the persistence and character to think as clearly as spring water while at the same time wading chest-deep in muck. These people are pretty rare.
It’s rare because it’s hard. The born entrepreneur has a leg up, because he really has no choice but to work to become that person. He may not know that’s what he’s doing, but he’s doing it nonetheless.