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Seven Lessons Learned From My First Founder Flop


“Don’t Take Advice” and More Startup Advice

My name is Jolijt Tamanaha, and I’m a recovering entrepreneur.

I’m the co-founder of Champio, software that helps the 70% of Americans who hate their jobs…. if only we could make those 70% of Americans actually want our software.

jolijt

We’ve been cramming out iterations of Champio for over a year and still don’t have the traction we need to raise a full seed round. And since we all do need to eat real food and cover real bills, it’s time for us to go find jobs that’ll pay us real money.

I’ve spent the last 6 weeks or so at Champio’s bedside, thinking about all that I could’ve done or should’ve done, and I’ve come away with seven lessons.

I hope these help you (and future me) build great things.


I. Solicit a ton of advice and then actively ignore most of it

When I co-founded my first startup — an online local food market for restaurants — I wasn’t trying to be an entrepreneur.

During my sophomore year at Washington University in St. Louis, I signed up for an entrepreneurship class. Myself and three other students cobbled together some simple software and sent a press release to a grand total of four journalists. Farmplicity was born.

All four journalists covered our launch. Eighteen months later, we sold Farmplicity to a food distribution company after signing up more than 200 farmers and 1/3rd of the independent restaurants in St. Louis.

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The day after we sold Farmplicity, my new co-founder and I began working on Champio and I said: “this time, we can do it the right way.”

As a newly bonafide member of the startup scene, I was inundated by people with descriptions of “the right way” to launch a company. And “the right way” slowed us down dramatically.

I no longer had the audacity to charge from Day 1 because “the right way” meant launching in beta and iterating. I put together decks “the right way” so they had all of the standard information but lacked a heart and soul. I tried to fund the company “the right way,” which meant searching for investors instead of bootstrapping (and look where we are today… we’ve done neither successfully).

Now, let me be careful. I’m not saying I was a better entrepreneur when I co-founded Farmplicity. And I am not, not, NOT saying Champio is floundering because I was given bad advice.

I’m saying: advice — by nature — is simple and straightforward while starting a company — by nature — is not.

I’m saying: read this article, devour every book you can get your hands on, and ask anyone smart to sit down and tell you what she thinks. Listen quietly and intently.

But understand every source of advice as an opportunity to learn about approaches to the problem that you might otherwise not know exist. Never, ever turn to a source of advice in search of an answer.

Nobody can give you an answer because nobody has successfully done exactly what you’re trying to do.


II. Time is King

Time is King. Time is King. Time is King. Investors love saying “cash is King” but cash is only King because cash buys you time. And time is King because time does whatever the hell it wants to do.

Before you start MVP’ing and iterating, come up with a way to get yourself plenty of time.

Notice that I’m avoiding the word “buy” in that sentence. Unless you’re a prodigy with an engineering degree from Stanford and a multi-million dollar exit under your belt, no one is funding your way to product-market fit.

So how do you get the time you need? Work on your startup as a side project while you grow in a full-time position or as a student. Set up sources of passive income that give you a small salary (not scammy scummy stuff… look up “profiting from a niche site” to get started). Charge customers from Day 1. If that’s not possible, start the company as a consulting practice while you finish building whatever it is you need to execute on your main business model.

I know all of that sounds exhausting. I know you just want to focus on the brilliant idea you’ve had. I know you’re trying to innovate and disrupt, not add yet another niche site or consulting firm to the mix.

But time is King and without time… lots and lots of time… your idea is a peasant that can’t grow corn.

Once you have time, hold onto it.

To hold onto time, avoid momentum. That’ll be hard. Entrepreneurs crave momentum. But when you’re still looking for product-market fit, momentum is dangerous because it’s distracting and addicting.

The ball will get rolling. You’ll get impatient. You’ll hire a team because that makes you feel like the ball is moving faster. You’ll pour money into marketing because it makes the ball look shinier. You’ll dedicate your soul to finding more investors so that you can spend more money on more things to improve that ball.

And when you can’t find those investors, the ball will come to an abrupt stop and you’ll realize that it’s hit the bottom of the mountain. You’ve run out of time. And guess what? That pretty little village you were aiming for is 50 miles South of where your ball ended up.


III. Focus on the numbers

You have time and you’re holding onto it. Now how do you find product-market fit so that the ball does end up where you’d like it to be? Focus on the numbers. Obsess over the numbers. Put the time (see you’re going to need a lot of it) into tracking and analyzing every quantitative measure of demand that you can think of.

If you’re anything like me, doing that is going to take some real mental discipline. I like ideas. I like people. I like conversations. I like design. I like code. I even like legalese. I don’t like numbers.

Numbers feel disconnected and useless (are you surprised I didn’t say the same about legalese? Both parents are lawyers). But numbers form trends and trends are everything. Trends tell it to you straight. If you don’t have product-market fit, the trends in your user numbers will say so.

Trends are important because people will tell you what you want to hear. That’s not news to you. You know that your mom will always think you’re brilliant and beautiful. But this might be news to you:

even complete strangers on the subway will tell you what you want to hear.

Why? Because you’re so damn charming. No really. Most entrepreneurs — especially the ones who end up actually doing the user interviews — intuitively sell the hell out of what they’re building.

I can list at least 200 people who told me that they have the problem we’re working on solving, that it’s a priority, and — later in the conversation — that the product we’re building will solve their problem. But when it came time to actually use the product that they so desperately wanted, few put in the effort needed to give our solution a fighting chance.

That’s not their fault. It’s mine. I tried to get to the heart of their issues, listen between the lines, and avoid leading questions. But I’m still me: a woman with big dreams, a lot of energy, and an eagerness that you can smell from a mile away. I smile when you give me some answers and wince at others. If you want to encourage me (and you do because that’s what feels good), it’s easy to figure out what I’m hoping to hear.

The minute Champio started systematically recording and analyzing our numbers, we realized: “holy crap, we’re solving the problem and nobody cares.” A pivot was in order. We buckled down and finished a new version of the platform in a month but it was already too late. We ran out of time.

So please, focus on the numbers.


IV. Hire for challenge-fit

The nine people who have worked on Champio at some point or another were all amazing in their own ways. But we got the most out of the team members who were in it for the challenge.

Yes, it helps tremendously if your people are passionate about the problem you’re solving, and of course, it’s nice when they’re also pleasant to be around. But when you’re building out an early, early, EARLY stage team, build it by looking for people who want to do something incredibly difficult.

If they’re in it for “the startup life,” they’ll bail. Lobster rolls and nap pods are the Google life, not the startup life. If they’re in it for the money, they’ll bail. The money comes after years and years of thankless, moneyless work. There are easier ways to earn dough.

Your early stage team needs to be in it because easy things bore them. You will be hit by challenge after challenge and when that happens, you need a team that gets excited. They should to look at you, smile, and say: “let’s figure out how to solve this.”

Build a team energized by difficulties and you’ve won half the battle.


V. Celebrate small successes with Champagne*

*Or Prosecco since it’s you know… cheaper.

Once you’ve built that team, cultivate them by celebrating them.

Whenever I look at something — whether it’s a website or an email or a sandwich — I immediately see 10 things that can be done to make it better. And those 10 improvements drive me in a positive way. I keep going because the world is a wonderful place filled with opportunities I can take to make it more wonderful. That’s why I’m an entrepreneur.

But I often forget to pull myself out of that approach to recognize today’s accomplishments. When we landed a meeting with a Fortune 500 company, I celebrated by preparing the deck for that meeting. When we pushed a big feature, I celebrated by emailing users for feedback. And while that type of thinking keeps me motivated, it doesn’t keep everyone motivated.

People need to be celebrated. And not celebrated in my improve-some-more-stuff way but just celebrated. With Champagne or at least a cookie.

Champio built 4 different iterations of a platform in less than 14 months and each one was 5 times better than the earlier version on every single dimension. We’ve tested those iterations with more than 2,000 people at more than 60 companies in 7 different industries. We got into and completed the Prosper accelerator program. We won second place atStrategyHack. And we were finalists for Student Startup Madness at SXSW.

We still have a lot to figure out (hence this blog post). But those small accomplishments were successes none the less. Champio needs me to say: “wait, put down the work for a second and look at what we’ve pulled off. It’s amazing.”


VI. Stop trying to draw a straight line

I’m going to go work a full time job. Is that going to kill Champio? Maybe. But I hope not.

“Wait,” you cry out: “this is a Medium article about your founder flop. What the hell are you talking about ‘maybe?’ It’s over.”

It’s not over until the fat lady sings, and I ain’t a singer (or a fat lady really).

Until recently, I’d been looking for a straight line that’d connect all of the dots and take Champio through what popular culture tells us is the startup life cycle. Talk to people… build an MVP… iterate… build an MVP… iterate… raise a seed round… launch… sell… raise a Series A… sell a whole lot more… raise a Series B…. sell A LOT more… and boom you got it!

But then I started paying closer attention and realized that there’s a dirty preface to every success story.

Look at Slack, the startup that hit 30,000 users and got a $1 billion valuation in 2 years. Go by their launch date and they sound like a straight line.

But Slack actually started in 2008 as Tiny Speck, a video game company that raised $1.5 million (founder Stewart Butterfield co-founded Flickr so his search for product-market fit does get funded). In 2010, Tiny Speck released it’s first game — Glitch — and raised another $10.7 million from VCs, including Andressen Horowitz. Then two years later, Tiny Speck discontinued Glitch and fired half of its employees.

Tiny Speck didn’t have a game but guess what they did have: time. They had money left over. While building Glitch, they had hacked together an internal communication tool. They decided to use their time to turn that into something.

And even then it still took their team of 30 full-time experienced engineers another 3 months to get Slack to a product that could be beta tested. After putting companies on in beta, it took them another 6 months to launch it.

Had Stewart Butterfield insisted on finding a straight line for Tiny Speck, he would’ve either started building another game or quit. But Butterfield didn’t need a line, he focused on the dot that he did have and on creating the next one.

Remember that short story I told you about Farmplicity earlier? It ended like this:

All four journalists covered our launch. Eighteen months later, we sold Farmplicity to a food distribution company after signing up more than 200 farmers and 1/3rd of the independent restaurants in St. Louis.

Sounds like a straight line right? Here are the sentences that should sit in between those two:

Then we called and visited hundreds and hundreds of farmers and chefs. I’d call a chef to ask him what ingredients he was looking for, call the relevant farmers to beg them to put up listings, and then call the chef back to tell him that “sure enough, we have 20 pounds of tomatoes.” I was a glorified vegetable broker for most of Farmplicity’s life.

And here is the sentence that should come after the one about our acquisition:

We sold Farmplicity not because it was a runaway success but because we realized that the startup needed a lot more than what the three of us could give it.

Not a straight line at all but it was easy for me to make it sound like one.

A photo of me in my dorm room at the height of Farmplicity… doesn’t look like much of a straight line. Photo credit to my sophomore year roommate Taylor Miccelotta and her brief stint with a polaroid.

Now, to be clear, I’m not telling you to never give up on your startup.Some startups suck. Sometimes you’ve a bad team and crappy investors and a lame product. And sometimes you’re just too damn tired to figure all of that out. If you’re unhappy, give up (it’s really okay) and move on because life is too short to spend any of it miserable.

But I am telling you not to give up just because the path doesn’t look like what you had imagined it would when you started going down it. I went from part-time founder to full-time founder and now I’m going back to being a part-time founder. That’s not how I thought this would all go down.

Straight lines exist for lawyers and bankers and TechCrunch journalists, not entrepreneurs. Do what it takes to make the next dot appear, and the dots will eventually connect themselves.


VII. Don’t take blind risks

Want to know a big Champio secret? You deserve to know since you’ve spent the last 15 minutes reading this.

I didn’t have to decide to get a full time job just yet. I know how to make our line look a little straighter for a little longer.

Our friends and family believe in us. With a few weeks of work and some papers, we could have the cash we need for 8 to 10 months of runway.

So why don’t I go ahead and buy us more time to find product-market fit? Sure, it’s a risk. 10 months isn’t a lot of months. But founders take risks. There’s nothing riskier than starting a startup. That’s a part of the game I signed up for, right? No it’s not.

I won’t because great entrepreneurs don’t take blind risks.

Many brilliant founders do things that seem crazy. We use their stories to justify shoving whatever cash we can find into our companies, like a tipsy retiree playing the slot machines in Vegas.

But those brilliant founders aren’t crazy, they just see things that we don’t. That’s what makes them innovators. They’ve calculated the risk, and they’ve validated the risk.

I didn’t understand that myself until a smart man told me his great story (let’s call him Eric because Eric is on vacation and hasn’t answered my email asking him for permission to include this).

Eric founded a startup in the late 90s and raised millions of dollars weeks before 9/11. When the market collapsed, Eric realized that his company wasn’t going to be able to raise the next round of cash that it would need to survive.

Rather than trudge ahead stubbornly, insisting that he’d figure something out (which is tempting if you have millions in the bank), Eric returned the cash he’d raised and closed shop. Years later, when the market had recovered, those same investors approached Eric and asked him to run a new startup. They knew that Eric was a great entrepreneur who understood the difference between a blind risk and an informed risk.

I can’t take a informed risk right now. I don’t need to see a straight line but I need to see the next step, the next dot. The money from family and friends will get us 10 months of runway if I’m the only one working on Champio. And if I’m the only one working on Champio, I don’t see a next dot.

Taking that blind risk wouldn’t make me a founder. Instead, I’d be (1) a crappy entrepreneur, (2) an even crappier family member and friend, and (3) an mental wreck.


So that’s that. Seven lessons learned from my first founder flop.

To be clear, this isn’t a concession speech. We’re keeping our enterprise software up and launching a free version of the platform for consumers. It’ll be “a FitBit for your career,” and I’ll spend my weekends building a community there.

At the same time, I’m going to go find a full time position. I’m excited to do so. I’ve learned a lot starting companies. But there’s a limit to the types of things you can teach yourself and a ton of value in learning under someone else.

If you want to be that someone else or know someone who should be, please reach out to me at jolijt@champio.com. I’ll learn and think and work for you with the skills, determination, and energy of an entrepreneur.

If you’re a founder struggling to cope with your hospice-bound startup, feel free to reach out as well. We’ll form a support group.

And if you’re a human being who enjoyed this article, please help me out by clicking on the “Recommend” button below so that others will find it.

This article also appears on Medium and is published here with the permission of the author
Title photo credit: flickr

in your inbox everyday at 10am CST.

No fluff or "pie in the sky inspiration." Just real stories.

Written by Jolijt Tamanaha

Spelled Jolijt but pronounced yo-light. Love peanut butter. Hate bell peppers. Cofounder of @BeChampio and @Farmplicity and doer of stuff.