Am I a Founder? The Adventure of a Lifetime.

When my students ask me about whether they should be a founder or cofounder of a startup I ask them to take a walk around the block and ask themselves:

Are you comfortable with:

  • Chaos – startups are disorganized
  • Uncertainty – startups never go per plan

Are you:

  • Resilient – at times you will fail – badly.  How quickly will you recover?
  • Agile – you may find the real opportunities for your company was somewhere else.  Can you recognize and capitalize on them?
  • Creative / Pattern Recognition – can you think “out of the box?”  Or if not, can you recognize patterns others miss?
  • Passionate – is the company/product/customers the most important thing in your life? 24/7?
  • Tenacious – can you keep going when everyone else gives up? Can you keep giving 200% despite all the naysayers who don’t believe in your idea?
  • Articulate – can you create a reality distortion field and have others see and share your vision and passion?

And I remind them that they should be bringing some type of domain expertise (technical or business) to the table.

This is the minimum feature set for founders.

Other Roles in a Startup
Generic advice given to entrepreneurs assumes that everyone is going to be the founder/co-founder. Yet for every founder there are 10-20 other employees who take the near-equivalent risks in joining an early-stage company.  If you’re not a founder (by choice, timing or temperament,) you may be an early employee or a later stage startup employee.

(And my advice to students who believe they want to do a startup but are unsure if they want to start one, is to join one that’s already raised their first round of funding. Founders know they want to start something.  If you’re unsure, you’ve just decided.)

I believe that founder, early and later stage employees require different risk/personality profile.

The Early Employee
If you’re a founder/co-founder all the attributes I mentioned above are needed in spades.  However, if you want to join a startup as an early employee (say in the first 25 employees,) you can modify the list above.

You still need to be comfortable with chaos and uncertainty, but by this time the major risk of where the first round of funding is coming from is gone.  However, you will be dealing with almost daily change, (new customer feedback/insights from a Customer Development process and technical roadblocks,) as the company searches for a repeatable and scalable business model. This means you still need to have a resilient personality, and be agile.

Early stage employees are “self-starters” and show initiative rather than waiting for other people to tell them what to do or how to do it. (You may be wearing multiple hats in one-day.) You have to be passionate about your work, the company and its mission to be working 24/7. But more than likely you don’t need to be as articulate or creative as the founders (they’re doing the talking, while you’re doing the work.)  And while you do need to be tenacious, you won’t need to be the last man standing if the ship goes down.

The Later Employee
If you want to join a startup as a later employee (say employee number 25-125, before the company is profitable) you can continue to modify the list above.

You still need to be comfortable with chaos and uncertainty.  And you will be dealing with change, but it won’t be the constant daily change the early employees dealt with. By now the company may have found and settled on a repeatable business model. And at this stage of the company rather than everyone doing everything, actual departments may begin to form. However, job responsibilities  and organizations will change regularly and you need to feel comfortable in embracing those changes and taking responsibility and ownership.

And you’ll still need to have a resilient and agile personality, as new customer and product opportunities will appear and change your work.  But it won’t be happening daily.  And while you still need to love what you do your passion doesn’t have to extend to tattooing the company’s logo on your arm.

The Adventure of a Lifetime
Take the time and think through who you are and what level of challenge you are looking for.

You’re not joining a big company.  Startups are the adventure of a lifetime.  But make sure it fits who you are.

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18 Responses

  1. [...] a comment » Yet another brilliant post from Steve Blank, this time about what it takes to found, co-found, or work in a startup at various stages of [...]

  2. As I embark on my first start-up I’m continuously bolstered by posts like these. Thanks Steve!

  3. Interesting. Will there be a lecture on getting seed money in a post crisis world? This is the question where most of startups I see get stuck desperately – and never take off.

    • Actually this is the mistake most startup entrepreneurs make – particularly in tough economic times. Get customers first. The money will usually follow.
      The post that would be relevant would be hints about “I have all these customers but can’t get funded.”

      steve

  4. This is an excellent rundown. In truth, I would love to send it to past self. My self in about September of last year, as a matter of fact :-/

  5. [...] Am I a Founder? The Adventure of a Lifetime. (tags: entrepreneurship startup business) [...]

  6. I can’t help but notice that you don’t have anything listed between “Founder” and “Early Employee”.

    You set up Early Employee this way:
    “You still need to be comfortable with chaos and uncertainty, but by this time the major risk of where the first round of funding is coming from is gone.”

    I’m in the situation of being such an early employee that it doesn’t fit this description. We have not had a first round of funding. Indeed, I’m taking on a similar kind of risk to that of the founders, the main difference being that they are all-in full-time and I am part time.

    I’m wondering if you’ve seen this kind of situation before. After asking around about it, I’m getting the feeling it’s pretty rare. If you have, I’d be very interested in your take on it.

  7. [...] carry on reading. AKPC_IDS += "499,"; (No Ratings Yet)  Loading … Posted in Leadership | Tagged [...]

  8. [...] Are you a founder? Great writeup of what it takes to be a founder and see if you fit the bill. [...]

  9. [...] Blank divides the individuals associated with startups [...]

  10. [...] Blank divides the individuals associated with startups [...]

  11. [...] Am I a founder? The adventure of a lifetime. Un très bon article qui revient sur les traits de caractères nécessaires pour rejoindre une startup, suivant son profil : fondateurs, tous premiers employés et employés qui arrivent lorsque la société est déjà bien lancée. [...]

  12. [...] If I succeed, it will be the most rewarding thing I have ever done.  If I fail—at least I will own the failure.  In any case, it will be the adventure of a lifetime. [...]

  13. [...] takes to be a founder or co-founder of a company, or even an early participant. Below we copy from Steve Blank’s blog. When my students ask me about whether they should be a founder or cofounder of a startup I ask [...]

  14. [...] Blank asks a lot of the right questions in his blog post: Am I a Founder? The Adventure of a Lifetime. Excerpted from his post:  “When my students ask me about whether they should be a founder or [...]

  15. [...] with this discussion, let me start with a definition of “early employee.”  Steve Blank divides the individuals associated with startups [...]

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